The Irish certainly didn’t see it coming. Take one of their national newspapers as a barometer of the hyped mood that existed in Dublin. A dozen of their experts were asked in Saturday morning’s edition for a score prediction and all 12 plumped for Ireland.
They summarily waved the flag on the back of their team’s 2018 form rather than actually read the runes coming into the weekend’s head to head.
Amid the pomp and ceremony of a Grand Slam calendar year that culminated in a win over the All Blacks, it was neglected how England had found a revitalising pulse in November and were waiting in the long grass to execute an ambush that has shown to everybody they are back and bolder than ever under Jones.
Mako Vunipola was swamped by the Saturday night plaudits, but now that the dust has settled and sights are now trained on hosting the French in London next Sunday, the value of his brother Billy to England’s revival can’t go unnoticed.
How they have missed him. Last Saturday was only Billy V’s fourth start in England’s last 23 games. A succession of broken arms and shoulder surgery the kryptonite depriving his country of his invaluable powers.
Nathan Hughes had stepped in a dozen times, with Sam Simmonds, Mark Wilson and Zach Mercer the other interim No8s, but it seemed as if they were only ever temporarily occupying the jersey before it would be handed back to its previous owner.
Jones seems to think so, recently joking that he would take care of Vunipola “like he’s the king’s baby” due to his importance to England’s twin 2019 ambitions of Six Nations and World Cup glory.
No one can forget how potent Vunipola was when coming of age in Jones’ first campaign. He made a chart-topping 93 carries for a 336-metre gain, an average 3.6 metres every involvement during that 2016 title-winning Six Nations.
Ireland’s CJ Stander wasn’t far behind him that particular spring, checking in for 87 carries. But there is subtlety in Vunipola’s play that leaves his No8 wrecking ball rivals in the shade.
The impact of his carries is what really matters and possessing the handling skills of a magician and the powerful thrust of a runaway tank, he is often unplayable.
Actually I said Billy Vunipola would.
— Brian O'Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) February 3, 2019
He certainly was that in spring 2016, beating 25 defenders and offloading eight times in the tackle to help put a pep in England’s step.
He was back at it in Dublin despite so much of the post-match kudos being heaped on Mako, his older brother by nearly two years who made 17 more tackles than the back row and carried for only a metre less.
Continue reading below…
Sift through the evidence of Billy V’s first Test start since defeat last June to South Africa in Bloemfontein and you will realise his impact was immediate, his role in the opening try just 91 seconds in crucial in exposing the Irish defence.
He ran hard at Devin Toner in the 22 on a seventh-phase carry and while he did get tackled by Bundee Aki, he demonstrated power and agility to turn back towards his teammates, aggressively stay on his feet and majestically offload the ball one-handed with his right hand to Ben Youngs.
By rights, England should have had to forage hard for ruck ball. Instead, Vunipola’s ability to stay in the fight and stay upright offered opportunity to move the ball quickly and allow the backs put Jonny May in at the corner.
It was exquisite play and there was more to come. Review England’s second try and Vunipola will be seen initially running a support line off Manu Tuilagi in order to clean-out at the resulting ruck. He then runs a selfless decoy that grabs James Ryan’s attention, helping the ball go wide to where Elliot Daly’s kick-through caused consternation and led to a score.
Next, there was bruising evidence of Vunipola’s immense power. Conor Murray’s box-kick clearance from the Irish try line failed to find touch and the No8 didn’t need to be asked twice to run the ball back from near the 10-metre line and set up a ruck back inside the 22.
He took a dozen strides before encountering enemy contact and he should have been stopped dead on impact as his 126kg bulk was, on paper, no match for the combined 221kg weight of the double-tackling Stander and Peter O’Mahony. Vunipola, though, managed to take another 10 short, brisk steps before being grounded, momentum that highlighted the difference in physicality which existed on the night.
His opening period contribution then ended with a sumptuous one-hand, out-the-back pass to Jack Nowell after he picked at five-metre scrum. That sparked the pressure that culminated in Mako’s try being disallowed for double movement.
Come the second half his major contribution came at the 66th minute scrum which laid the platform to settle the Six Nations result irrevocably in England’s favour.
It was only a subtle intervention, but he stopped the ball in the set-piece at his left foot, a position that allowed Youngs take the ball out at the side of the scrum rather than at the back and it helped create the space that led to the kick ahead for Henry Slade’s first try.
No wonder coach Jones will be purring. If Vunipola – who signed off with 49 metres off 10 carries and 14 tackles – can make that positive a contribution while still shaking off the cobwebs of an international career stunted in recent times by multiple injuries, imagine what destruction he could be capable of if he manages to stay healthy and plays the entire campaign for England?
That’s food for thought for Louis Picamoles, the French No8 tasked with curbing the Billy V revival.
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.