England's No 8 has been excellent throughout the Six Nations and was superb again on Saturday as England agonisingly fell short of a sensational title heist. We analyse Billy Vunipola's performance against France.
Something rather extraordinary happened at the end of England‘s post-match press conference at Twickenham on Saturday following a bittersweet 55-35 battering of France that showcased some stunning attacking rugby but ultimately meant the hosts took yet another Six Nations runners-up spot.
When all the pressing enquiries had been fielded, Andy Farrell stood up. “Can I just say one more thing?” he asked, before answering his own rhetorical question. “I thought Billy Vunipola was outstanding today.”
To single out an individual spoke volumes. This was a genuinely epic instalment of Le Crunch. England had scored seven tries against a side that had shipped two over the preceding 320 minutes.
Only twice, against Australia in 2010 thanks to a Drew Mitchell hat-trick and against New Zealand in 2007 with Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu razing Paris to the ground, have Les Bleus conceded more points.
Of course, a number of moving parts were needed to produce such a return, so for Farrell to place Vunipola on a pedestal was a reflection of something seriously special from the Saracen.
Remarkably, Billy Vunipola had never completed 80 minutes in a Test before England overturned Wales in Cardiff. He played every second of the tournament thereafter, and was superb.
Stuart Lancaster defines a world-class performer as one of the top three on the planet in any given position. Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole and Joe Marler can lay claim to the moniker. Chris Robshaw is very close and Jonathan Joseph might be soon.
Now fulfilling his monstrous potential, Vunipola is nearing the marker as well. His display on Saturday reinforced as much.
A feature of Vunipola’s evening was his immense appetite for work. He hunted involvements all game. The law of averages is fairly simple on this – the more times a prodigious talent can figure, the more likely their team is to do well.
Many of Vunipola’s contributions were telling, starting here at the opening scrum. He spies that the ball is out and rushes through on Sebastien Tillous-Borde, forcing the Toulon scrum-half to throw a horrible pass into midfield.
Not content with that, Vunipola follows the ball to tackle the receiver, Yoann Huget:
A closer look at the first intervention shows how the No 8 bides his time before striking:
This puts France far behind the gain-line, giving them slow ball against a well-set defence. Jules Plisson chucked a poor pass that Joseph scooped up and Ben Youngs‘ first try resulted.
In the second half, Vunipola and James Haskell combined for an outright steal from a France set-piece. Watch how Vunipola latches onto Haskell latter to haul him forward:
Physical statements are valuable at every level of rugby, not least in the early exchanges of a crucial international. For that reason, this maul turnover lifted England hugely:
Having lined up France skipper Thierry Dusautoir, the first step is line-speed. Vunipola sprints up, occupying Dusautoir’s peripheral vision:
He then wraps up his man, holding him above ground, first alongside Haskell…
…and then with Cole after Haskell is cleared out by Nicolas Mas:
England were on the front foot here, and ended the passage with possession. That said, Vunipola was also excellent when France had the ascendancy and made a mighty 21 tackles overall.
Here, he scrambles into shot to take down Huget after the wing cuts back and bumps off Jack Nowell:
Notice how Vunipola gets to his feet and competes for the ball. Only a joint clear-out from Yoann Maestri and Bernard Le Roux prevents a steal.
Indeed, Vunipola’s decision-making at the breakdown has been a good throughout the Championship. Although Nigel Owens adjudged England to have infringed here for using their hands in a ruck, watch Vunipola make a nuisance of himself.
He holds Huget up before demonstrating discipline to roll away:
England Under 18 coach John Fletcher used a certain phrase when Vunipola junior was coming through the ranks. In phase-play patterns, the key distributor had to be either “B or B” – a back or Billy.
It is easy to see why. Even now, Vunipola’s handling skills and awareness are significant assets. In this instance, following a fine ruck turnover from Lawes, one long pass puts the ball into space and sets England away:
Looking up to see a staggered, disjointed defensive line, Vunipola’s vision is magnificent:
His ensuing support play is just as impressive. He tracks the attack but does not rush all the way to the ruck, instead picking a line off Ben Youngs and carrying hard:
We will come onto Vunipola’s running game later. Before that, a glance at a set move England used late on. Interestingly, Vunipola is deployed as a playmaker:
Starting in the scrum half position, he drops to receive the ball from fellow Saracen Richard Wigglesworth, who has looped around from the front of the lineout:
Shaping either to take it himself or send up Billy Twelvetrees on a hard line, Vunipola then pulls back to George Ford:
A reverse angle is best to track the opening as it unfolds thanks largely to Vunipola’s pass:
Trucking up and scoring tries
Weighing over 120 kilograms and possessing fearful leg drive, Vunipola is a wrecking ball in the collision. However his carrying game is more than brainless marauding. This effort from backfield was exemplary:
Plenty of attributes shine through here. Initially, Vunipola’s positioning and anticipation ensure he is in the right place for catcher Ben Youngs to find him:
Having received the pass and set off, Vunipola steps off his left foot:
This is important. Footwork prior to contact is a means of unbalancing the defenders and therefore weakening their posture prior to tackling.
It works magnificently, Vunipola tying up three Frenchmen and presenting the ball perfectly for Ben Youngs to whip away after Dylan Hartley and Lawes have resourced the ruck:
Vunipola barged over for England’s penultimate try shortly after the hour mark, the score once displaying massive desire as the 22 year-old carries twice in three phases:
Dragging himself off the deck for another shunt at the fringe defence following Ben Youngs’ dart, Vunipola got some help from big brother Mako. This must have felt great:
The ability to step up when the intensity escalates is what sets apart truly exceptional players. So when Vunipola offered himself to take this short lineout when Tom Youngs was struggling to hit his men…
…and when he secured this restart as England pressed for what would have been the Championship-clinching six points…
…a sense of do-as-I-do leadership shone through.
A wonderful Six Nations finale has made the Rugby World Cup even more of a delicious prospect. Vunipola, who was surplus to Lancaster’s requirements for the latter part of last autumn, is sure to be a major protagonist for England.