By Charlie Morgan
Billy Vunipola’s Test career may be only seven matches old, but the rumbustious No 8 is already a talismanic presence for England. Still just 21, the young Saracen is forging some attractive on-field trademarks – carries that consistently career over the gainline, audacious offloads and crunching tackles to name but three facets of his outstanding all-round game.
Two eye-catching performances against France and Scotland to start the current Six Nations have singled him out as a shining light for Stuart Lancaster’s charges. But what does Vunipola think of the peers that share his position for rival sides across the tournament? He gave Rugby World a quick run-down.
France – Louis Picamoles
“Louis is a great player. He’s really tough, both as a carrier and over the ball at the breakdown. In France they call him ‘The Iceberg’ because of how low his centre of gravity is and you can see that in the way he’ll run through two or three people easily.
“He did that on a few occasions against us, but as a team we managed to keep him fairly quiet. It just happened that Yannick Nyanga did a lot of running for them instead!
“Like Louis, part of my job is to get as many yards as I can. He’s got huge lower limbs and it’s very easy to underestimate how powerful he is through the tackle – I certainly did when I faced him. He just pumps his legs and keeps on going. You’ll try and get hold of him and he’ll just drag you along.”
Scotland – Johnnie Beattie
“When he came on, Johnnie broke the line a few times and dropped the shoulder on me once – he’s really dynamic. A lot of people were surprised at how early they replaced Dave Denton, but Johnnie’s a seriously good player as well.
“Dave is in the Pierre Spies kind of mould – he’s really athletic and tall. He stood out at Murrayfield for the way he ran with the ball against us and got over the gainline. It gave the Scottish crowd something to get behind as well, which is no bad thing.
“Work in the back-field has got a lot more important for No 8s because nines and tens are trying to target them and test how solid they are under the high ball. It’s come into the game more recently, which means we have to work on it a lot. It’s a tough job – I never realised how hard it was until I started dropping back to catch so many balls.
“Full-backs probably don’t get enough credit for winning those 50-50s. They help us out a lot by talking to us – we’re just a bunch of dummies that run around and they tell us where to go. It’s down to them when the ball comes to us.”
Ireland – Jamie Heaslip
“He’s a similar build to Johnnie Beattie and just as skillful as anyone – almost like a back in how agile he is, but hugely powerful too. Jamie’s a real focal point for Ireland. There are a few big figures in that Ireland team. I’m really looking forward to playing against them all.
“I remember watching Brian O’Driscoll score that try for the Lions against Australia when I was a kid back in Tonga. To have a chance to play against those people is crazy. I keep thinking about how lucky I am and how weird it is that I’m in this position. It’s quite funny.”
Wales – Taulupe Faletau
“Obviously he’s my cousin, so if I get the opportunity to play against him it’ll be really odd – kind of the same as it was playing Mako for Wasps last year. I guess it’s the professional era though, so I’ll just get on with it. In those situations, you have to try extra hard to focus on your own game. You can’t go looking for anyone because it puts you off your game.
“Taulupe’s freakishly talented – quick, strong, good under the high ball. I look at him and think how similar he is to Keiran Read, not only in the way he plays, but also in how long his limbs are. When we do meet up, we won’t talk about rugby – definitely not specific games or anything like that. It tends to get too stressful when you talk about that.
“Mine and Mako’s handling skills have probably come from the games we used to play as a group of cousins back in Bristol. We’d be down in the park throwing a ball around all the time. We’d even go place-kicking. If you missed you’d have to stand under the posts and punt it back.
“It was always good fun and I guess we knew one day we could go further and make something of rugby. It definitely that made us closer, too.”
Italy – Sergio Parisse
“Lawrence Dallaglio was probably the guy I looked up to, but Sergio has been a brilliant performer for years and his influence as captain is massive for Italy. In everything from his lineout jumping to his step he is world-class and the pundits always rate him as one of the very best. Rightly so, as well – he deserves it.
“As he shows, being a number eight is also about bringing other runners into play. (England Under 18 coach) John Fletcher always used to say to us: “Love the rugby ball.” Sometimes that meant even going to bed with it.
“That’s helped my off-loading and I’m lucky being with England because we’re always trying to stay ahead of the game. It’s an ambitious group that’s developing well.”
Get behind-the-scenes news from Billy Vunipola and his England team-mates with Inside Line, the weekly show from O2 in partnership with England Rugby, at www.O2InsideLine.com