La Rochelle 24-10 Saracens: Levani Botia excels as holders knock Premiership leaders out of Champions Cup and Billy Vunipola’s injury causes concern
- Saracens were knocked out of the Champions Cup by holders La Rochelle
- ‘Demolition Man’ Levani Botia produced an excellent display for the hosts
- There are concerns Billy Vunipola could miss rest of the season through injury
A damaging day for Saracens saw their Champions Cup hopes turned to dust by La Rochelle’s ‘Demolition Man’ Levani Botia — and Billy Vunipola in danger of not playing again this season.
The visitors came here as runaway leaders of the Premiership, but this was an occasion which highlighted the glaring gulf between the English elite and their Gallic rivals.
In front of their fervent home support, Ronan O’Gara’s title-holders pounded Saracens into submission, led by the remarkable Fijian flanker who delivered a breakdown masterclass.
Exeter will have to find a way to stop him in their semi-final in Bordeaux on April 30. What a daunting task it promises to be.
Botia is a freakish talent. At the age of 34, he has reverted to the back row after a spell operating in midfield.
Levani Botia was hugely impressive as La Rochelle managed to overcome Saracens
There are fears that Billy Vunipola may not play again this season because of injury
He has a vast repertoire in both defence and attack, as he showcased in front of an adoring audience in this pulsating quarter-final. The hosts’ openside won four turnovers and exerted such an influence over Saracens that they conceded 16 penalties — many of which came from their desperate attempts to escape Botia’s clutches.
Saracens didn’t have anyone to match him, but then no other team has anyone like Botia when he is in the sort of zone he was in on Sunday.
‘Botia is different,’ said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall. ‘It’s a race to that breakdown and we lost it. He was phenomenal.’
Saracens fought the good fight, as befitting their status as English standard-bearers. But not only did they fall a long way short, they were also left to count the cost of their thunderous commitment.
Vunipola was carried off on a stretcher in the 22nd minute and the initial signs were not good. ‘It was his knee,’ said McCall. ‘I’ve never seen Billy carried off before. He’s on crutches. It’s a huge worry.’
With a Premiership title still up for grabs, the doomsday scenario for McCall is that their exit from one major event also adversely impacts on their prospects in another.
In their own league, Saracens have sufficient physical clout to match all-comers but here they were outmuscled by a monstrous La Rochelle side. There were times when Will Skelton was on the charge against his former club that it was a striking mismatch as defenders clung valiantly to the Australia lock’s massive frame.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall described Botia as ‘different’ following the game
Owen Farrell of Saracens finds himself challenged by Ulupano Seuteni of La Rochelle
Try as they might, the visitors struggled to contain their familiar foe until a late controversy which left a bad taste. Four minutes from time, Saracens hooker Tom Woolstencroft smashed Skelton in the face with his arm at a ruck.
It may have been intended as a legitimate clear-out but it was no such thing and it left the giant in a groggy state, until he was carried off. At a time when players are being sent off for passive roles in collisions, it was quite shocking that Woolstencroft was let off with a yellow card.
Earlier, when Skelton was in his element, he had a hand in La Rochelle’s first try in the 34th minute, after three early penalties by Antoine Hastoy. Impressive front-row pair Pierre Bourgarit and Reda Wardi added momentum to the attack before Tawera Kerr-Barlow swerved through a gap to score.
Former All Black scrum-half Tawera Kerr Barlow impressed as La Rochelle managed to prevail
Hastoy converted and after the break, when Kerr-Barlow – the former All Black scrum-half – added his second try, it was the imperious Botia who provided the assist with a break into the 22 and well-timed inside pass. Saracens produced some high-octane, daring attacking rugby at times and they did hit back with a close-range try from prop Eroni Mawi, but another Hastoy penalty reinforced the champions’ dominance.
They will be favourites to beat Exeter and reach another final. Rob Baxter and his coaches will review this not-so-close encounter and be left in no doubt that unless they find a way to stop Botia, they could face a grisly fate in Bordeaux.
Hastoy converted and after the break, when Kerr-Barlow added his second try, it was the imperious Botia who provided the assist with a break into the 22 and a well-timed inside pass. Saracens produced some daring rugby at times and they did hit back with a close-range try from prop Eroni Mawi, but another Hastoy penalty reinforced the champions’ dominance.
They will be favourites to beat Exeter and reach another final. Rob Baxter will review this not-so-close encounter and be left in no doubt that unless his side find a way to stop Botia, they could face a grisly fate in Bordeaux.
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