Mako Vunipola free for England in Six Nations despite four-match ban | Saracens

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The Saracens and England prop Mako Vunipola has received a four-match ban after being sent off against Newcastle on Saturday. Vunipola was dismissed during the closing stages of the Premiership game after a dangerous tackle on the Newcastle hooker, Bryan Byrne. He will miss Saracens’ Premiership games with Leicester and Exeter, plus Champions Cup games against Bordeaux-Begles and Lyon.

Vunipola, though, will be available for England’s Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome on 3 February if Steve Borthwick decides to recall him. That could prove timely, given the injuries to England’s three World Cup squad loosehead props Ellis Genge, Joe Marler and Bevan Rodd.

Vunipola’s case was heard by an independent disciplinary panel. “The player admitted that foul play took place, but not that it met the red card threshold,” the Rugby Football Union said. “The panel upheld the charge and Vunipola received a four-match ban. He is ineligible to take part in World Rugby’s coaching intervention programme, having completed it in 2022.”

Had Vunipola not already done that programme, he could have applied on this occasion and then expected to have had one game subtracted from the suspension.

Meanwhile, the Exeter director of rugby, Rob Baxter, has hailed Henry Slade’s influence this season and backed him to be in contention for an England recall. Borthwick sprung a major selection surprise last summer by omitting Slade, who has 56 caps,from his World Cup squad. Slade, though, has responded impressively, guiding Exeter to second place in the Premiership table before Saturday’s Sandy Park showdown with the leaders, Northampton. He is the Premiership’s top points-scorer this term, proving a pivotal figure on and off the pitch.

Borthwick is set to announce his squad for the Six Nations this month and Baxter said: “I am very confident that Henry is in and about and in the mix there. There are a number of centres who are playing well, but I am certain he will be in the mix. That’s why it is important he keeps playing with the quality he is playing with.

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“He has got a couple of weeks now, a couple of big performances. Northampton here, in a top-of-the-table clash on Saturday, is a huge opportunity for that, then we go into European Cup rugby the next couple of weeks after that. There are some big opportunities for Sladey to lay down a marker and I am sure he will take every opportunity he can.”

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