How Billy Vunipola lent his weight to England’s Dublin victory, but not in the way we expected

Eddie Jones has a skip in his step on the way from his car to his office at Pennyhill Park this morning, and it’s thanks in no small part to the gargantuan Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi.


By Alistair Stokes
5th February
By Alistair Stokes
5th February

Eddie Jones has a skip in his step on the way from his car to his office at Pennyhill Park this morning, and it’s thanks in no small part to the gargantuan Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi.

Saturday’s sacking of Dublin came as a direct product of the team Jones has been waiting to field since he was first approached to take over from Stuart Lancaster following an embarrassing home World Cup campaign, with the prospect of the aforementioned barnstorming trio kicking down front doors to expose the silverware likes of Owen Farrell, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell would eventually plunder.

However, only one of this gargantuan trio, Leicester Tigers’ Tuilagi, would serve as one of England’s battering rams on Saturday, with the Vunipola brothers surprising most with their lack of carrying. The Saracens siblings were served as true Trojan workhorses, lending their considerable combined weight of 247kg - or 38 stone in old money – to John Mitchell’s imposing white defensive line.

First of all, we take a look at how the lauded ball carrying of the younger of the brothers, Billy, was excellently nullified by the Irish defence.

Ahead of England’s first try, Billy carried into Ireland’s defensive wall but is well met by a mixture of Devin Toner and his opposite man Bundee Aki. Take a look at the image below, where the Irish duo managed to hold Billy up, in an attempt to slow English ball; something we'll see the Vunipola brothers achieve to great effect later in this piece.

The England number eight goes on to avoid Ireland creating the familiar sight of a midfield maul, by holding up an offensive runner, by freeing his big right paw and shifting the ball away to Ben Youngs.

This quick turnover of ball is what sets up Farrell’s ability to send THAT pass and set England up for the ideal start.

The Irish also managed to stunt Billy’s next carry, with openside Josh Van de Flier cutting down his quarry in true flanking fashion.

Aside from one or two carries from the England number eight, his offensive game was, for the most part, absent from the visitor’s armoury. Jones’s pack shared carrying duties over the weekend, with no one player standing out as the main source of hard yards.

So where did the Vunipolas come into their own over the weekend, and why were they so influential if not seen assaulting their opposition’s line with regular success? In short, the brothers were staunch defensive pillars for their side, with the younger of the pair proving once again that his breakdown threat is the silent killer of his game.

Often working together, we see a classic example of their influence in the image below. So often a source of carrying metres for the Irish, CJ Stander charged headlong into England’s defence, with captain Rory Best hot on his heels in a supporting capacity.

Billy makes the initial, thunderous hit, killing Stander’s momentum. Mako capitalises in this lack of impetus and grapples with the South African-born number eight, holding him up just enough to prevent Conor Murray from being supplied with quick ball.

Flankers Mark Wilson and Tom Curry were busy slowing Ireland’s ball in a jackling capacity, but Mako’s influence in the above clip is just as valuable at slowing down opposition possession, and at a much lower risk of conceding a penalty.

Five minutes later, we see one of Billy’s finest defensive contributions. Given the aforementioned value of holding a player up and denying your opposition’s halfback, Murray in this instance, quick service, Billy displays his hunger for work.

Below we can see him making consecutive tackles, firstly working in tandem with his brother once again, this time knocking Toner backwards behind the game line.

Billy goes on to commit himself to tackle Stander after Toner manages to get the offload away, working with tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler this time to hold his opposite number up and severely delay the ball Murray and the Irish backline have to work with. 

Reaffirming his ability to not only use his considerable 126kg frame to hold players up and delay his opposition, Billy goes on to prove himself a breakdown pest.

20 seconds after his consecutive defensive offerings on the right side of the Dublin turf, Billy has worked his way just left of centre field, once again working with his older brother.

This time around, the Irish carrier is able to escape the grasps of big brother Mako, neatly stepping inside the first Vunipola brother to aim for the gap Jamie George was yet to close, whilst working away from the previous ruck.

Mako managed to scrag Healy’s right ankle and bring his opposite man to ground. With his target conveniently to floor immediately in front of him, Billy snatches the opportunity to compete for the ball before Tadhg Furlong can make contact with the man that would have been his British and Irish Lions teammate if not for shoulder surgery two years ago.

Such is Billy’s weight and core strength, it takes the added presences of both Best and second row James Ryan to clear the England number eight, and even then, we can see he is still able to fall towards the ball and attempt to disrupt Murray.

It’s undeniable that brothers’ carrying is a string of unicorn hair to England’s bow and something that while under the radar and less than prevalent in this particular match, proved hugely influential in continuing England’s game line dominance.

But the pairs’ impressive work ethic on the other side of the ball and, in particular, Billy’s added threat at the breakdown takes England to an almost unrecognisable degree when compared to last year’s dismal Six Nations campaign.

If Jones is able to boast the Vunipolas, Tuilagi and the sizable frames of Sinckler, Maro Itoje and even Ben Te’o, they’ll be considered contenders for both a Grand Slam and potentially, the Webb Ellis trophy. However, a lot can happen in eight months and boasting an injury free is a rare commodity.

The Rugby Magazine

Filed under: International, Six Nations, England, Ireland
Written by: Alistair Stokes
Follow: @alistokesrugby · @therugbymag

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