Billy Vunipola makes successful return for Saracens in win over Newcastle
Billy Vunipola helped Saracens keep in touch with Aviva Premiership leaders Wasps with a 35-27 victory over Newcastle at Kingston Park.
The 24-year-old number eight played 72 minutes and looked full of energy on his comeback from a four-month injury lay-off to press his claim for an England recall in Saturday's Calcutta Cup match against Scotland.
However, Vunipola, who returned from his knee injury three weeks ahead of schedule, was upstaged by fly-half Alex Lozowski, who contributed 20 points with two tries, two penalties and two conversions from five attempts.
Saracens were cruising at 35-13 when Vunipola took his well-earned rest, having secured a bonus point and an 18th successive victory over Newcastle in all competitions, but the Falcons made the final scoreline respectable by scoring two converted tries in the last four minutes.
Mark McCall's domestic and European champions are now just a point behind second-placed Exeter and six behind Wasps with five rounds left before the play-offs, while Newcastle lost ground in their fading bid for a European Champions Cup spot.
Dean Richards' Falcons, who scored seven tries against Northampton in their previous home game, had the encouragement of two early penalties from scrum-half Sonatane Takulua but Saracens' South African lock Michael Rhodes marked his 50th appearance with the opening try, intercepting Takulua's pass five metres out from the Falcons' line on seven minutes.
Takulua looked a certain tryscorer after supporting a break by impressive centre Juan Pablo Socino until winger Sean Maitland's last-ditch tackle forced him to spill the ball as he was about to touch down and that was a blow from which the home side never fully recovered.
Wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti caused all sorts of problems for the visitors but the Falcons were unable to apply the final touches to some promising moves and Lozowski nudged his side further ahead with a penalty before racing onto a precision grubber kick from his half-back partner Richard Wigglesworth to score their second try.
Lozowski's conversion made it 18-6 at the break and, although Saracens were forced to reshuffle after losing full-back Duncan Taylor 10 minutes before the interval with a leg injury , they enjoyed a purple patch in the early stages of the second half which enabled them to put the game to bed.
Chris Ashton finished of spell of intense pressure in the Newcastle 22 by accepting skipper Brad Barritt's pass to go over unopposed for his side's third try that made it 23-6.
A forceful run from centre Dominic Waldouck earned the Falcons their first try on 56 minutes but Lozowski sealed the victory nine minutes later by picking off a pass from fly-half Joel Hodgson to go over for his side's fourth try and replacement winger Nathan Earle added another five minutes later.
With both Vunipola brothers off the pitch, Newcastle stepped up a gear in the closing stages and grabbed consolation tries through Goneva and prop David Wilson, both converted by Mike Delany, to earn a bonus point.