Exeter maintained their superb home form as they defeated Leicester 29-10 in front of a record crowd at Sandy Park.

An attendance of exactly 15,000 witnessed the Chiefs end their 2023 home campaign in style with a bonus-point win as they stretched their unbeaten Sandy Park run in all competitions to 23 matches, spanning a period of 61 weeks.

It took the Tigers a long time to find their way into the game, despite many of their internationals returning to duty.

They trailed 24-0 early in the second half and, when they finally did fight back, they had left themselves too big a mountain to climb.

Chiefs centre Henry Slade had another an excellent game, once more staking his claim for an England recall for the upcoming Six Nations.

Exeter got off to a dream start with a close-range try after only seven minutes from South African flanker Jacques Vermeulen following a period of intense pressure on the Tigers line, with Slade converting.

Four minutes later they were awarded a penalty try when George Martin was adjudged to have tackled Rory O’Loughlin early to prevent him taking a try-scoring pass from Tom Wyatt and the lead was suddenly 14-0.

The advantage could have been increased even further if Lewis Pearson had not opted to go for glory himself, with two players outside him.

That passage of play saw Chiefs prop Scott Sio and Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs limp off, soon to be joined by Leicester winger Josh Bassett.

Even referee Tom Foley needed some first-half treatment after getting smacked in the ribs when he inadvertently got in the way of a Leicester attacker.

Chiefs had a try by Jack Yeandle ruled out for a double movement in the 35th minute, but they rammed home their first-half superiority a minute before the break when Slade latched on to a very loose pass from World Cup winner Handre Pollard, who had a first half to forget, and raced 40 metres to score under the posts, leaving the simplest of conversions for a 21-0 interval lead.

Slade put the Chiefs four scores clear 11 minutes into the second half with a penalty as the Tigers collapsed a scrum.

Leicester finally got their first points on the board in the 56th minute when England winger Anthony Watson finished off in the right-hand corner after they had camped on the home line following an initial break by Jasper Wiese. Pollard badly pulled the conversion attempt.

More sustained try-line pressure created a walk-in score for full-back Freddie Steward after former Chiefs centre Solomone Kata’s long pass as Tigers continued their fightback.

However, the conversion was again crucially missed, this time by Jamie Shillcock, leaving them still 14 points adrift.

Exeter were not satisfied with just the win, though, and replacement lock Rusi Tuima forced his way over with the clock in the red to claim the bonus point and provide the perfect finish for the home supporters.

Exeter maintained their superb home form as they defeated Leicester 29-10 in front of a record crowd at Sandy Park.

An attendance of exactly 15,000 witnessed the Chiefs end their 2023 home campaign in style with a bonus-point win as they stretched their unbeaten Sandy Park run in all competitions to 23 matches, spanning a period of 61 weeks.

It took the Tigers a long time to find their way into the game, despite many of their internationals returning to duty.

They trailed 24-0 early in the second half and, when they finally did fight back, they had left themselves too big a mountain to climb.

Chiefs centre Henry Slade had another an excellent game, once more staking his claim for an England recall for the upcoming Six Nations.

Exeter got off to a dream start with a close-range try after only seven minutes from South African flanker Jacques Vermeulen following a period of intense pressure on the Tigers line, with Slade converting.

Four minutes later they were awarded a penalty try when George Martin was adjudged to have tackled Rory O’Loughlin early to prevent him taking a try-scoring pass from Tom Wyatt and the lead was suddenly 14-0.

The advantage could have been increased even further if Lewis Pearson had not opted to go for glory himself, with two players outside him.

That passage of play saw Chiefs prop Scott Sio and Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs limp off, soon to be joined by Leicester winger Josh Bassett.

Even referee Tom Foley needed some first-half treatment after getting smacked in the ribs when he inadvertently got in the way of a Leicester attacker.

Chiefs had a try by Jack Yeandle ruled out for a double movement in the 35th minute, but they rammed home their first-half superiority a minute before the break when Slade latched on to a very loose pass from World Cup winner Handre Pollard, who had a first half to forget, and raced 40 metres to score under the posts, leaving the simplest of conversions for a 21-0 interval lead.

Slade put the Chiefs four scores clear 11 minutes into the second half with a penalty as the Tigers collapsed a scrum.

Leicester finally got their first points on the board in the 56th minute when England winger Anthony Watson finished off in the right-hand corner after they had camped on the home line following an initial break by Jasper Wiese. Pollard badly pulled the conversion attempt.

More sustained try-line pressure created a walk-in score for full-back Freddie Steward after former Chiefs centre Solomone Kata’s long pass as Tigers continued their fightback.

However, the conversion was again crucially missed, this time by Jamie Shillcock, leaving them still 14 points adrift.

Exeter were not satisfied with just the win, though, and replacement lock Rusi Tuima forced his way over with the clock in the red to claim the bonus point and provide the perfect finish for the home supporters.

England are to provide greater support for the welfare of their players in response to captain Owen Farrell taking a break from Test rugby to prioritise his mental health.

Farrell made the shock decision just weeks after leading England to a third-placed finish at the World Cup in France – during which he was regularly booed by fans – and he will miss at least the Six Nations.

The fly-half’s international team-mate Kyle Sinckler stated that Farrell taking a step back was “only the beginning” because of the workload and pressure faced by players at the highest level.

As well as being booed at games, Farrell has been the victim of online abuse and there is an acceptance at the Rugby Football Union that playing for England brings with it a growing level of scrutiny.

“We just want to support Owen and all the time we are looking to improve the wrap-around care for players. That is the most important thing,” RFU executive director of performance rugby Conor O’Shea said.

“It is getting more and more difficult and febrile to operate in some of these environments so we need to look really carefully at this to make sure we are the best at it.”

Head coach Steve Borthwick is to be given greater control over his most important players with the introduction of 25 ‘hybrid contracts’.

But while he will be able to set an England star’s conditioning program and influence medical decisions when they are with their clubs, he will not have the scope to dictate what position they play.

Marcus Smith was primarily used as a full-back during the World Cup but Borthwick would be unable to insist he wears the 15 jersey for Harlequins were he to be given one of the new contracts.

“We are very careful when it comes to selection and where a player will play at his club,” O’Shea said.

“The deal is that players are paid to win at the weekend and so clubs will make that final call where the player plays.”

O’Shea has been involved in shaping plans for a new-look second tier of English club rugby that will sit below the Gallagher Premiership.

The league – tentatively named ‘Premiership 2’ – would replace the existing Championship with teams currently in that competition invited to indicate whether they wanted to be involved.

If there was insufficient interest then all funding to the Championship in its current form would be pulled by the RFU, who believes the competition needs a significant overhaul.

“What are you investing in? You’d rather take that money and invest it in other things,” RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said.

“I know it’s a controversial topic, but where are you going to get that return on investment?

“We’ve shown that if you pour money into the existing structure of the Championship, it just doesn’t deliver. That’s not being disrespectful, it just doesn’t.”

Will Stuart hopes involvement in Bath’s resurgence this season can help in his quest to become England’s first-choice tighthead prop.

The 27-year-old was delighted to go to a first World Cup earlier this year but frustrated at starting just one match at the showpiece in France – the Bronze Medal victory over Argentina – and being left out of the 23-man pool entirely for the knockout clashes against Fiji and South Africa.

As he enters what he hopes will be his peak years, Stuart is determined to stake a strong claim to take over from 36-year-old Dan Cole and become England’s established number three in time for the next World Cup in Australia in 2027.

The former Wasps forward – who has won 33 caps since his debut against France in the 2020 Six Nations – threw himself straight back into club rugby after the World Cup and has helped Bath make a strong start in both the Gallagher Premiership and the Investec Champions Cup.

“Every player wants to play in a World Cup and the next one in Australia is a massive goal for me,” Stuart told the PA news agency.

“If my career ended now, I’d say ‘I achieved a little bit, I won a few caps for England and played at a World Cup’ but realistically I haven’t won silverware, I haven’t played in multiple World Cups and I haven’t really solidified myself as a starting tighthead for England, so there’s a lot I aspire to do.

“I played in three of the group games (as a substitute) and then missed out on the quarters and semis, which was a frustration.

“But it’s been pretty clear from chatting with the coaches what my work-ons are and what I need to do to be a first-choice tighthead for England.

“If I’m playing well for Bath and can contribute to a winning team, that falls into giving myself a good opportunity to push on with England as well.”

In addition to his own form, Stuart’s bid to establish himself for England will be influenced by how long veteran Leicester tighthead Cole can soldier on.

“The way Coley plays, I reckon he could play until he’s 54,” joked the Bath forward. “He’s great, he was great for me during the World Cup and it’s impressive that he’s still playing at that level at 36.

“He’s on 107 caps for England and played 300-plus games for Leicester and he’s been starting and playing 70-odd minutes for the majority of that so he’s a good person to look up to.”

With the Six Nations looming in the new year, Stuart feels England have huge potential for further growth under Steve Borthwick after defying pre-tournament scepticism to reach the World Cup semi-finals.

“I think we were written off a lot during the World Cup,” said Stuart.

“Draw-wise we probably had an easier route to the quarters but we ended up taking South Africa to one point in the semi-final and until the last 20 minutes we were all over them, so I think that is something to massively build on.

“Including the Six Nations and the lead-up to the World Cup, the coaching group probably only had about a six-month period to really work with the team and, with that in mind, we had a way of playing where we knew we could basically get to knockout rugby.

“When we got to that stage, it was always going to be fine margins and we were one point away from the final.

“I think the coaches have been very clear on the areas where we can push on and make massive strides to get back to where England have been in the past.”

Former Wales assistant coach Rob Howley was banned from all rugby activities for breaching World Rugby’s anti-corruption and betting regulations, on this day in 2019.

Howley was banned for 18 months, with nine months suspended, after it emerged he had placed bets on matches involving Wales and two of their players.

It was found that, over a four-year period from November 2015 to September 2019, Howley placed 363 bets involving 1,163 rugby matches with three bookmakers through accounts held under his own name.

Of the bets, 24 involved Wales or were related to “connected events”, such as Six Nations games involving rival teams. On two occasions he bet on unnamed Wales players scoring tries.

Howley was sent home from Japan shortly before the 2019 World Cup began after the WRU became aware of possible wrongdoing.

The alarm was first raised when WRU policy and integrity manager Jeremy Rogers was contacted by an employee of Betway, who claimed that Howley had placed bets on Wales games.

It emerged that Howley gambled on a Wales player to be the first try-scorer in the 25-7 Six Nations victory over Ireland in March, but he stated that it was part of a treble that fell in line with his normal recreational betting activity. He also backed another player to score a try.

When the unnamed players were interviewed they denied any knowledge that the bets had been placed on them, with Howley supporting their testimony.

The WRU found that Howley made an overall loss of £4,000 during the time period under scrutiny and described his activity as a “hobby”, while adding that “we use the word hobby with some caution because it seems that a trigger for Mr Howley’s betting activity was a family tragedy involving the death of his sister”.

Howley returned to coaching with Canada after serving his ban and, in December, was appointed as technical coach with Wales ahead of the 2024 Six Nations.

Finn Russell reckons Scotland will benefit from having burgeoning backs Ben White and Blair Kinghorn plying their trade at the top level in France.

Scrum-half White, 25, joined Challenge Cup winners Toulon after the World Cup following the demise of London Irish, while 26-year-old full-back Kinghorn moved from boyhood club Edinburgh to Top 14 giants Toulouse earlier this month.

Russell returned to the UK to join Bath this season after establishing himself as one of the top stand-offs in the world during five fruitful years in France with Racing 92.

The 31-year-old believes it can only be a good thing for Scotland to have two key players – both of whom scored tries in the Champions Cup last weekend – spending their prime years in a league he holds in the highest regard.

“I think it’s good moves for the two of them, they’ll have great fun playing over there,” Russell told the PA news agency. “They’ll learn a lot and they’ll be challenged in a way they probably won’t have experienced before with the language, the lifestyle and the style of rugby.

“But I think both of them will adapt really well and they’ll grow as players as well as men. They’ll get to learn about the French mentality, French rugby and the individuals.

“That’s knowledge that you don’t really get until you’re out there playing. It will be great for the national team and it will be brilliant for the two guys personally.”

While Scotland have no issue with their players moving overseas, Rugby Football Union rules do not allow those based abroad to be selected for England.

That means 21-year-old winger Henry Arundell – who featured for Steve Borthwick’s side at the World Cup – will no longer be able to be picked for his country after this week extending his contract with Racing until 2026.

Russell is thankful he did not have to consider such a scenario when he moved to the Paris club from Glasgow in 2018.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be an Englishman and rule yourself out for playing for the national team but that’s obviously a decision he’s happy to live with,” said the Scotland talisman.

“He must be loving it out there. I was in Paris for five years and I loved every minute of it so I can understand why he’s staying.

“He’ll grow as a person and be challenged in a way he probably wouldn’t be over here with the language and the lifestyle. He’ll love it out there and I can understand his decision to stay.”

Russell will be reunited with some familiar faces next month when Bath host Racing – with Arundell in tow – and then visit Kinghorn’s Toulouse the following weekend in the Champions Cup.

“It will be good fun,” he said. “It will be different playing against Racing having been there for five years but I just need to treat it as another game.

“I can’t get caught up in the mental side of playing against my old team. Toulouse is another great place to go and play, especially in a European game, so I’m looking forward to both of those games.”

Finn Russell’s latest World Cup disappointment has not dented his enthusiasm to play for Scotland as the talismanic stand-off declared he has no intention of making himself unavailable for the national team any time soon.

The 31-year-old was gutted at suffering a second successive pool-stage exit in France in October, but he told the PA news agency his desire to pull on the dark blue jersey remains as strong as ever.

“No, not at all,” he said when asked if his appetite for international rugby had been diminished by his World Cup experience.

“If anything it’s given me a bit more of an appetite to get back into it with the national team again and try to get a few more wins and try to win something.”

Fellow Scotland star Stuart Hogg retired from rugby in the summer aged 31 but Russell, who is just a few months younger than the former full-back, aims to still be operating at a level that allows him to go to his fourth World Cup in 2027.

The fly-half, who recently joined Bath following five years in France with Racing 92, will turn 35 a week before the showpiece in Australia begins.

“Hopefully,” he said. “Age-wise, I’ll be able to make that. It’s just about whether or not I’m playing well enough, so hopefully I am. I’ve got no inclination to finish up any time soon internationally.”

This year’s World Cup, in which Scotland were well beaten by South Africa and Ireland, cut deep for Russell.

Instead of taking a holiday immediately afterwards, he chose to throw himself straight into club rugby with new side Bath, making his debut as a substitute against Newcastle just a week after the demoralising defeat by the Irish.

But as one of Scotland’s vice-captains, he has been in contact with head coach Gregor Townsend to dissect the tournament with a view to improving for the upcoming Six Nations.

“I came straight into something new after the World Cup so that didn’t allow me to reflect on it as much as others might have,” he said. “I think that’s fine though. It’s always in the back of your mind.

“I had a call with Gregor just to chat and give my opinion on how we could have done better at the World Cup, how we could develop, and how we could use it as a learning curve for both of us and the whole team.

“We were both chatting about how we thought the World Cup went, where we can grow and develop from it, how we can get better as a team and us both as individuals – me as a player and him as a coach.

“It wasn’t like we were blaming each other or anything like that, it was just a good conversation to get us going in the right direction.

“The style of rugby we’re playing is very exciting and we’re scoring tries but obviously against Ireland in particular we had a disappointing result.

“We’ll have to address a few things from the World Cup that didn’t go as planned and we’ll have to grow as a group and get better but I’m looking forward to the Six Nations coming round and trying to achieve something.”

Russell himself is in a good place. Following five years in Paris, he and his young family have enjoyed “a very easy transition” to life in Bath over the past couple of months.

After starting seven of the in-form Gallagher Premiership side’s last eight matches, the stand-off feels fit and fresh.

“I’m feeling good,” he said, speaking ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup trip to Cardiff. “I came straight back after the World Cup and played the next week so I didn’t have a week to dwell on the World Cup.

“I just wanted to get on to the next thing and get a new focus straight away.

“After a few games, I had a week off and went to New York with my partner so it was nice to get away and relax.

“Even though the World Cup was frustrating, it’s been good to get back in here and get some good results.

“It’s been a new challenge with a new team and I’m feeling fresh.

“I’ve settled in very smoothly, easily, quickly, which has been brilliant and rugby-wise we’ve been playing well. So far, so good. I’m enjoying it.”

In addition to the usual club and country matters, the prospect of a third British and Irish Lions tour will soon be on Russell’s horizon.

The Scottish superstar went to New Zealand in 2017 and South Africa in 2021 and is a likely contender to be involved again in Australia the summer after next.

“It’s something I know is coming up and it will be at the back of my mind but my main focus for now is doing as well as I can with Bath and Scotland and then we’ll get to the Lions when it comes round,” he said.

“I think everyone in the UK and Ireland will have that as their goal after the World Cup but it’s quite a while away. I just need to do my job for Bath and Scotland.”

Andy Farrell has signed a two-year contract extension to remain as Ireland head coach until the end of the 2027 World Cup.

Farrell has developed the national side into heavyweights of the game and while the recent World Cup ended in a disappointing quarter-final exit, he has overseen significant success.

Since replacing Joe Schmidt in 2019, he has masterminded a Grand Slam, Triple Crown and series victory in New Zealand, as well as steering Ireland to the summit of the global rankings.

“Coaching Ireland has been a hugely enjoyable experience and I’m proud to extend my association with the Irish Rugby Football Union,” Farrell said.

“It’s a pleasure to work with such a talented and committed group of players and as we enter a new cycle, it will be exciting to see more players come through the system.

“There is a talented group of established internationals who are determined to succeed at international level for Ireland and I’m excited to see how the recent Ireland U20 squads will also emerge and challenge for international honours in the near future.

“It all makes for an exciting next chapter and it is one which my family and I are delighted to continue.”

Farrell is the current World Rugby coach of the year and by the time his new contract ends, he will have spent 11 years in Dublin.

“Over the course of the last four years Andy has helped drive the highest standards for the men’s national team,” IRFU performance director David Nucifora said.

“It’s testament to the positive environment which he and his backroom team have fostered that Ireland has enjoyed such a sustained period of success in recent times.”

The contract end date raises the possibility of Farrell eventually taking over from England head coach Steve Borthwick, whose deal with the Rugby Football Union also concludes after the 2027 World Cup.

Rob Howley has been appointed to Warren Gatland’s coaching staff for the Six Nations in his first involvement with Wales since being banned for breaching betting regulations.

Howley served as Wales’ attack coach from 2008 to 2019 in a golden era for the national side that featured four Championship titles, three of them Grand Slams.

The former Lions scrum-half was forced to step back from the game in the build up to the 2019 World Cup when his betting activity came to light, resulting in an 18-month ban from rugby, half of which was suspended.

Now he has returned to the fold as a ‘technical’ coach in a role that also sees him involved with the Wales Under-20 side ahead of their Six Nations.

“It feels to me like the time is right and I’m really looking forward to returning to the fold with Wales,” Howley said.

“I have a second opportunity to do a job I’ve dedicated my working life to and I’m grateful to everyone in Welsh rugby for their acceptance and their faith in me, it’s faith I intend to repay to the best of my ability.

“I have been through an extremely challenging time in my life. Speaking out and talking about it has enabled me to move forward.”

Jonathan Thomas’ departure as contact area coach created space in Gatland’s management team, allowing Howley to link up with fellow assistants Mike Forshaw, Jonathan Humphreys, Neil Jenkins and Alex King.

“Rob is one of the most successful and experienced Welsh coaches on the international arena at the moment,” Gatland said.

“When we lost Rob from Welsh rugby we lost a hugely significant amount of intellectual property, knowledge of the game in Wales and of the international scene.

“We are delighted that he will be joining the 2024 coaching team and it’s a major coup for Welsh rugby to have secured his services once again.”

Eddie Jones admitted he “felt terrible” about Australia’s World Cup failure but insisted he had no guilt about the process that saw him return as Japan boss after stepping down from his post with the Wallabies.

At a press conference on Thursday, the 63-year-old faced more questions about how and when he first made contact with the Japanese Rugby Football Union about replacing Jamie Joseph, having repeatedly denied reports about contact with the JRFU that first emerged during the World Cup.

Former England coach Jones said he had not interviewed for the job until this month, and that a Zoom call with recruiters on August 25, before the start of the World Cup, was to discuss his previous experience in the Japan job between 2012 and 2015 to help them frame their search.

“I didn’t do an interview before the World Cup,” the Australian said. “I was asked by the recruitment agency to share my experiences with them. The first interview I had with Japan was in December and that’s the only interview I’ve had.”

Jones returned to the Australia job in January this year, signing a contract that was due to continue through to the 2027 World Cup. But, after a poor World Cup in which Australia were knocked out in the first round for the first time in their history, he used a break clause to leave for Japan.

“With Australia I signed for five years and we had a plan to take them to two World Cups,” Jones said. “There were things that needed to happen in Australia to change the system we had. I agreed with the chairman on a plan on what we were going to do to do that, they needed finances to change the system.

“After one year there was a break in my contract with Australia Rugby on whether they could fulfil those commitments. I felt without them being able to fulfil those commitments we wouldn’t be able to develop talent to the fullest extent and I decided then I wanted to move on.”

Asked if he needed to apologise to Australia fans, Jones said: “I gave everything I could for that short period of time and it wasn’t good enough…I wish Australia all the best.

“I feel terrible about the results in Australia, I wanted to go back and change Australia so I feel terrible. I don’t feel any guilt at all about this process…

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I can’t control their opinion. All I can control is what I did and it sits well with me. I don’t have a problem with it. If people feel like that, that’s their judgement, I can’t control that.”

Jones will take charge of a Japan team that also failed to get out of the first round in France, finishing third in Pool D, and said his goal is to overhaul the structure of the Japanese game to best play to their strengths, getting universities and club teams all pulling in the same direction.

“I’m honoured and privileged and looking forward to the task of creating a Japan side that has real identity and a point of difference,” said Jones, whose mother and wife are Japanese. “I think any great team in any sport, it doesn’t matter what jersey they play in, you can clearly see the team they are.”

Henry Arundell may be unavailable for England until 2026 but Exeter boss Rob Baxter insists the restriction on selecting overseas-based players must remain in place.

Arundell has signed a two-year contract extension with Racing 92 after turning down a move to Bath that would also have included one of the Rugby Football Union’s 25 ‘hybrid contracts’.

It means the English game’s most exciting talent, who plundered five tries in the World Cup match against Chile in September, is off-limits to Steve Borthwick for over two years.

Arundell’s decision has renewed the spotlight on the RFU’s rule that only those players competing in the Gallagher Premiership can be considered, but Baxter insists it is necessary for a healthy league.

“How will we promote our competition as being at a very high level if you’re wide open to the best players playing outside the country?” the Chiefs director of rugby said.

“That will never help promote the Premiership and without promoting the Premiership I don’t think you’ll ever get a successful England side.

“The best way to keep young players in this country is by letting them know that staying in this country gives them the best opportunity to play international rugby.”

Baxter is preparing Exeter for Sunday’s Investec Champions Cup clash with Munster at Sandy Park as the Devonians look to build on their impressive one-point victory at Toulon in round one.

The triumph on the Cote d’Azur was among the highlights of a superb weekend for the Premiership, whose clubs recorded seven wins in eight games, including four against Top 14 sides.

The results come amid concerns over the league’s ability to compete on the European stage, not least because of a smaller salary cap, and at a time when a number of England players including Arundell and his England team-mates Jack Willis and Joe Marchant have headed across the Channel.

Baxter suspects the Premiership teams may have been underestimated in round one and will reserve judgement over what it means until deeper into the competition.

“Because of the negativity surrounding the Premiership lately, it would be very easy to take the Premiership clubs lightly. Maybe that’s what happened,” he said.

“There’s not a first-team player in the Premiership who is not a good, determined professional rugby player and you’ve seen that in how competitive the games have been.

“We should be talking positively about the Premiership and the results at the weekend bear that out. There should be more positivity around the Premiership than there is, but also we need to back that up.

“English teams will be competitive, our challenge going forward is how we maintain that. We’ll know the answer a little bit down the line, it’s a little early to tell after one round.

“If we get to the latter stages and there are a few Premiership clubs involved, then we can start to look at the reasons why that’s happened.”

Eddie Jones has been appointed as Japan head coach for the second time.

The former England boss will take up his post on January 1, the Japan Rugby Football Union announced.

Jones stepped down from his role as Australia head coach after a dismal World Cup showing in France.

He was first linked with the Japan job in September, but repeatedly denied those reports.

The 63-year-old coached Japan from 2012 to 2015, famously masterminding a stunning victory over 2015 World Cup opponents South Africa in Brighton.

Billy Vunipola’s red card he received during Saracens’ Investec Champions Cup clash against the Bulls in South Africa has been overturned.

It means that the England number eight is free to play immediately, making him available for Saturday’s European appointment with Connacht.

Vunipola was sent off early in the second half by Italian referee Andrea Piardi for a dangerous strike to the head area of Bulls forward Cameron Hanekom.

The 31-year-old, who appeared by video link before an independent disciplinary panel, accepted that he had committed an act of foul play, but he did not accept it warranted a red card.

Tournament organiser European Professional Club Rugby said: “The committee determined that Vunipola had committed an act of foul play.

“However, it decided that there was insufficient force in the contact to Hanekom’s head to warrant a red card, and the red card was therefore overturned.

“Vunipola is free to play immediately, and EPCR has the right to appeal the decision.”

Saracens were beaten 27-16 by the Bulls in the first of their four Champions Cup pool games.

Henry Arundell will be unavailable for England selection until 2026 after agreeing a two-year contract extension with Racing 92.

Arundell, one of the most exciting talents in the English game, cannot be picked by Steve Borthwick due to the Rugby Football Union’s rule of only allowing players in the Gallagher Premiership to be considered for selection.

The dynamic 21-year-old has turned down a move to Bath that would have been enhanced by one of the RFU’s hybrid contracts, which are being introduced next year.

The financial collapse of London Irish at the end of last season resulted in his switch to Racing and while he was available for the World Cup because of the circumstances, his decision to stay in Paris places him in England exile starting with the Six Nations.

“We are delighted to see Henry extend his commitment with Racing 92,” club president Laurent Travers said.

“He just joined our squad a few weeks ago but has already demonstrated all the qualities of a great competitor and great maturity.

“He fits perfectly into the club’s short- and medium-term objectives and we are convinced that he will be one of the driving forces to achieve them.”

With Arundell’s new contract expiring in June 2026, he has the scope to join a Premiership club for the 2026-27 season with a view to playing in the next World Cup.

Having scored five tries against Chile at France 2023, he then announced his arrival to Racing fans with a hat-trick against Toulon, confirming his status as one of the game’s most dangerous runners.

He follows international team-mates Jack Willis, Sam Simmonds, Jack Nowell, Joe Marchant and David Ribbans in committing himself to the Top 14, but he is the youngest to do so in what is a blow for the English game.

Former England captain Sarah Hunter admits it is a dream to know the North East will host the opening fixture of the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

It was confirmed on Monday by World Rugby and Rugby Football Union that the Red Roses will kick off the tournament at Sunderland’s 48,707-seater Stadium of Light on August 22, with the final set to take place at Twickenham on September 27.

Hunter, who was born in North Shields, bowed out from the international game in March after playing her 141st Test against Scotland at Newcastle’s Kingston Park and is excited about a new generation being inspired by this fixture.

“When I knew the North East was getting a game, I was so excited and when I heard it was the opening game with the Red Roses, honestly it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” Hunter said.

“I am so proud to be from the North East and I know how much sport means to people here.

“The game is massive here and I think because we’re so far away, we sometimes get forgotten about, but to rubber-stamp it by hosting that first game here, we can show everyone how great the people are and what a great host city it can be.

“To know it could spark someone to either start rugby or want to continue it and hopefully in three or four World Cups’ time there can be players in the Red Roses team who were here because that is what they needed to generate that excitement and inspiration to want to play rugby.”

Hunter was a key figure the last time England hosted the World Cup in 2010, but the majority of fixtures for that tournament were played at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford.

After leading her country to the World Cup final against hosts and eventual winners New Zealand last year, the current England transitional coach is proud of the game’s continued growth.

She added: “I’ve been a couple of times to the Stadium of Light but I’m not going to lie, I’ve been to St James’ Park a few more times! But it’s an incredible stadium.

“My first (Test) cap at Old Albanian Rugby Club was in front of 200 people, the first World Cup I played was a home World Cup and we played our Pool games at Surrey Sports Park, which at the time was the right venue.

“So, to come to the Stadium of Light for the opening game and to have the atmosphere that will be generated, to be playing in stadiums of this calibre has been the dream.

“I am so excited and in some respects, I wish I was a little bit younger so I could have another crack at a home World Cup!

 

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“Now going back into the team on a coaching capacity, you want to be performing in your home World Cup.

“Having played in the last two and fallen short in the final, we will definitely set our eyes on winning this home World Cup.”

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