Ali Stokes argues that Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola needs to be deployed in a different way by England
Opinion: Eddie Jones Must Rethink Billy Vunipola’s England Role
The excitement, fiery debate and drama of the 2019 Six Nations is beginning to unfold as a nervous energy begins its crescendo. No one will be more aware of the importance of the last Six Nations before the Rugby World Cup than England coach Eddie Jones, whose most important task this year must be to rethink Billy Vunipola’s role for the sake of both player and nation.
The headlines may be dominated by yet another classic Jones soundbite, suggesting Exeter wing Jack Nowell would be able to play at openside flanker for England, but the true narrative of note surrounds the staggering firepower now at the Australian’s fingertips.
Related: England Six Nations Squad
The sight of a fit Manu Tuilagi or Billy Vunipola has become a rarity over the past three years, with England’s most destructive carriers destined to send the supporters’ hopes through a roller coaster of emotions, a never ceasing circle of ‘will he won’t he’ be fit for national duty.
But this year not only does Jones have both Billy and Manu fit and firing, he has Mako Vunipola (Billy’s older brother), Worcester’s physically imposing centre Ben Te’o and even the luxury of Bath’s colossal winger Joe Cokanasiga to choose from.
Criticism has been laid at Jones’s door over the past two years in regard to relying far too heavily on big ball-carriers, with last year’s fifth-place finish in the Six Nations piling a mountain of blame on his doorstep.
Fortunately for both supporters and Jones himself, England enjoyed a positive autumn campaign. The most important narratives of Jones’s second November campaign came in the nature of his selections, completely changing the face of his team’s balance – all for the good.
Bereft of the bulldozing Billy or Wasps man Nathan Hughes at the back of England’s scrum, Jones turned to Newcastle Falcons blindside Mark Wilson, who went from the unseen Premiership workhorse to, arguably, the year’s biggest success story. Combined with a breakdown-proficient flanker pairing of Brad Shields and Sam Underhill, the problem areas Scotland and France exploited to devastating effect nine months ago were nowhere to be seen.
With this new-look unit operating with explosive tighthead Kyle Sinckler and Owen Farrell’s return to his preferred ten jersey, alongside the substantial presence of Te’o, balance was restored for the current England team.
With the prospect of blending the healthy balance Jones struck in November and the availability of his favourite powerhouses, Jones must drastically rethink the manner in which he deploys his fit-again ammunition.
Most important is the role in which Billy Vunipola is employed once restored to the No 8 jersey. The success of Wilson alongside two capable breakdown components – and not an out-of-position second-row – must be replicated as closely as possible.
Since returning for Saracens, Billy has reminded the England coaching staff of his aptitude at the breakdown and his ability to mix it with the backs when required – and not solely as a battering ram, as he has most often been deployed under the Jones regime.
The unrivalled physicality Billy provides England must be treated as a luxury and not the stable diet of hypothetical success. If this side once again become overly reliant on the No 8, history will repeat itself, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that sees Vunipola enjoy a short period of destructive jubilation before once again being driven into the ground and onto the physio bed.
Having the likes of big brother Mako, Sinckler, Te’o and Tuilagi in the squad allows a significant weight to be lifted from Billy’s shoulders, spreading the responsibility of gaining front-foot ball across the XV and permitting the wrecking ball of a No 8 to flaunt his full skillset and enjoy some semblance of longevity of fitness in the lead-up to the much coveted World Cup campaign later this year.
Jones must learn to deploy Billy Vunipola as a luxury and not a crutch.
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