Billy Vunipola the difference between Winning and Losing the Six Nations

Billy Vunipola the difference between Winning and Losing the Six Nations
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Last weekends Aviva Premiership match-up at the Ricoh saw England number eight Billy Vunipola return from injury. Last Word on Rugby author Alistair Stokes explains why he will be the difference between England winning and losing the 2018 NatWest Six Nations.

When it comes to barnstorming number eights, there is no one in world rugby that can stand toe-to-toe with Billy Vunipola. The Saracens man is is a force of nature ‘when fit and firing’. And Wasps felt the brunt of it over the weekend.

Vunipola could take the ball from a static start and still make ground against two waiting defenders. The backrower’s return to fitness has given England’s 2018 Six Nations aspirations a huge boost, no one else could have. Many believe he will be the difference between England winning and losing the Six Nations, and for England, losing is anything other than top of the pile.

In Vunipola’s 2017 Absence

Vunipola missed all but one game of England’s 2017 Six Nations campaign, and sadly for him the entirety of the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, through injury. England’s pack looked significantly underpowered throughout the last Six Nations, the absence of Billy and older brother Mako were significant. Both of the brothers would be the first choice at eight and loosehead prop respectively, for England then, as they are now.

He also showed how to make an impact off the bench. Against Scotland in March, Vunipola was substituted on during the second half. Full of urgency, he was rewarded with a try and demonstrated his class.

By the time that the November Internationals arrived, Billy was unavailable.¬†And while Nathan Hughes has his qualities–and performed well, even scoring a great try in the fixture against Australia – Billy Vunipola is a class-ahead.

England Benefits from Vunipola’s Substantial Bulk

Eddie Jones’ 2016 England side took their season by storm. The side looked unstoppable in their Grand Slam victory, and in the commanding 3-0 whitewash series in Australia. The rugby world recognized that Billy Vunipola, and brother Mako, were world beaters.

Mako’s and Billy’s 2017 absence severely hampered the national sides ability to win the gain line. The most glaring of these examples was England’s 36-15 defeat of Italy…. more commonly known as ‘ruck gate‘. Italy capitalized on the law that saw no offside line created when they did not enter men into the tackle. An interesting tactic, but this allowed the Azzurri to stand on ‘England’s side’ of the tackle. Therefore, blocking the pass of scrum-half Danny Care.

England were forced to pick and go from virtually every tackle. In this situation, the substantial bulk of the Vunipola’s would have been invaluable. It was missed on many occasions, and shows that when a team boasts the likes of Billy in their pack; the likes of Mako at prop, Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes have pressure taken off their role as ball carriers. Billy can especially wreak havoc when on the charge after first or second phase ball.

The aforementioned trio are at their best when Billy is fit, diminishing the side’s reliance on their running game. Billy Vunipola will bring the best out of the forward’s game in the tight, in both defense and attack. Something they will need to utilise profoundly more in 2018, if they are to quell the threats of a fast-paced Scotland side and a ruthless Irish team, and secure a third straight Six Nations title.

Setting a Platform Key to England’s Attack in 2018

Owen Farrell and George Ford will benefit hugely from this front-foot ball. This allows them ample time and better field position to unleash the likes of Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly. Attack is Jones’ current area of focus, acknowledging his first year was about developing a world-class defence and set piece.

Eddie’s second year was focused on developing squad depth–with the injuries to key men like Billy and Mako Vunipola, and the absence of Lions players in June.

This third season is about building a stable winning team, that is able to attack in a way no one else can. They must vanquish the ‘winning ugly‘ mentality, and be focused and detailed. Farrell especially is the key to maintaining a winning record, with men like Billy Vunipola his ‘weapons of choice’.

England Strengthened by a fit Billy Vunipola

England have actually profited from Billy’s and Mako’s absences for virtually all of the 2017 Six Nations. Jones blooded more players than originally intended, and can now benefit from a clearer understanding of squad-depth for it. But in no uncertain terms, England are strengthened with a fit Billy Vunipola. And in seeing a fully fit Vunipola play for Saracens, the signs are great.

With little under two years until the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, we are likely to see an England side with as much intent as we’ve seen ever under Jones. Captain Dylan Hartley and co will be desperate to make up for the frustrations of last years Six Nations performances. Over the next two years, they will be driven to right the wrongs of being knocked out of a home World Cup in the pool stages, back in 2015.

I for one find myself as fired up for this Six Nations as any other in my lifetime. Eager to see how Jones plans on launching a fully fit first XV on the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

The 2018 Championship kicks off on February 3 – see full schedule here.


Be sure to follow Last Word on Rugby on social media (Facebook/Twitter) as we cover the build-up, duration and post-championship examination of the 2018 NatWest Six Nations.

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