Of all of the areas of the recent British and Irish Lions’ squad selection, perhaps the most widely agreed upon position (in terms of squad selection) is that of Number Eight. There have traditionally only been two players selected at this position – with a number of other players able to cover in an injury crisis or the drafting in of replacements – and there is very little debate that within the British Isles, there are two clear protagonists in the form of Billy Vunipola of England and Taulupe Faletau of Wales.
Lions Test Selection Up for Grabs
It is widely expected that both will be on the plane to New Zealand but what is less clear is who will be the starting the First Test in Auckland on 24th June. Neither player has had the ideal preparation for the tour having suffered injuries this season. Both were replaced for their respective nations during the RBS Six Nations with Nathan Hughes and Ross Moriarty, respectfully, deputizing extremely successfully. They have had limited game time but like all great players, they have returned to form quickly and both look like a class apart when turning out for their club sides in the Aviva Premiership.
Rivalry a Family Affair
There is an added frisson to this battle, in that this is their family affair. The South Sea Island pair are cousins and so will know each other’s personality; as well as their game, intimately. It has always been fascinating head-to-head.
Back in early 2016, Wales Online ran a comparison which had Faletau coming out as the 82/100 to 79/100 victor but there is much to suggest that now it ‘may be even closer’.
Billy Vunipola has really made a name for himself playing under Eddie Jones. He has always been a ‘gargantuan ball carrier’ owing to his 20 stone-plus frame and power from a standing start. He stuttered through the early part of his international career, swapping starting berths with Ben Morgan due to inconsistencies within his game.
Indeed, it was a cruel leg-break that forced Morgan out of the starting line-up and gave a new ‘streamlined’ Vunipola the chance to win his slot back.
Increased Speed and Fitness
With reduced weight – albeit to a still eye-watering 130 kilograms – came increased speed and fitness. Yet under Eddie Jones, Vunipola has improved that mobility even more. Jones’ view was that even at his now playing weight of 127kgs, he has more than enough bulk to counteract the majority of opponents. But it is the explosiveness of his power that is a bigger weapon – particularly from a standing start.
At 24, he is the younger of the two men but with 34 international caps to his name, two English Premiership titles and European Champions Cup glory in 2016 with Saracens, Vunipola is amassing a startling amount of experience and success in his short career so far.
Those high-pressure games have really helped him to focus and make good decisions at critical times – a must for a Lions starting jersey you’d think.
By contrast, it seems as though Taulupe Faletau has been around forever yet he is only two years senior to Vunipola at 26. He has amassed 67 caps, a Triple Crown, Six Nations Championship, a Grand Slam and a member of the winning Lions series in 2013. This is a seriously mature head on still ‘relatively young’ shoulders.
Defensive Prowess and Tackle Turnover Ability
Where Vunipola’s strength is his bulk and power, Faletau’s is his defensive prowess, and his flexibility. He has tremendous hands and is equally at home out in the back-line as he is in the tight.
Faletau has become a lynch-pin in the Shaun Edwards driven defensive system, and makes significantly more tackles per game than his cousin. He also gives away fewer turnovers – that experience may be the telling factor here – a critical element when facing the best counter-attacking unit in the world.
Welsh No.8 a Line-Out Option
Faletau also is a genuine line-out option, could play any role across the back row and can pack down at second row if required.
Moriarty made a huge impact at 8 for Wales during the Six Nations and deserved to keep his place when Faletau returned from injury part-way through the tournament. Paradoxically, this didn’t help his ability to get back to match fitness and form but more game time for Bath has seen that change in recent weeks. Indeed, both Faletau and Vunipola are approaching their best again after a run of games that have allowed them to prove their fitness and influence.
One key difference between the players when it comes to this summer’s tour is the experience of; and against, the opposition.
Faletau has played against New Zealand a number of times and was singled out by All Black captain Kieran Read ahead of Wales’ 2016 tour down under, confirming the respect with which they hold the Gwent man:
“Faletau is a great player, he’s strong and will be a key man for them. He’s certainly got a wealth of experience now for the Welsh and is a big ball-carrier for them – he loves to take the ball up off the back of the scrum.”
The Tongan-born Welsh star plays in a similar way to Read with the focus on an all-round game rather than the more hulking approach from Vunipola. Yet ironically, the lack of visibility of the Saracens man by the New Zealanders may be an advantage in terms of the surprise factor. Although one could hardly suggest that Vunipola’s antics over the last 12 months, including the tour to Australia, will have gone unnoticed to anyone in the professional game. Let alone the number one ranked All Blacks side.
So it may well come down to Gatland’s preference where you would have to say that Faletau should have the nod. Of course, the build-up in the remainder of the Premiership season; as well as the lead-in tour games, may mean one player shines brighter than the other.
For me, Faletau would edge the starting birth with an impact off the bench from the Saracen player. Bringing him on after 60 mins, it may well be the like of which, not even the All Blacks will have witnessed before.
By July 2017, one or both could be world beaters, on the most vaunted International tour of recent times.
“Main Photo Credit”