- Billy Vunipola carried the ball 18 times in 57 minutes against New Zealand
- New Zealand performance sets our benchmark says 126kg No.8
If carrying the ball at the heart of the world champions 18 times in 57 minutes is how Billy Vunipola proves a point, then Stuart Lancaster will hope the 21 year-old feels under pressure for the No.8 shirt every week.
Vunipola’s aggression with ball-in-hand was an eye-catching feature of England’s resurgence against New Zealand on Saturday, running at hard at 122-Test Richie McCaw and world player of the year in-waiting Kieran Read as Lancaster’s side overturned a 17-3 opening quarter deficit.
After taking a 22-20 lead on the hour mark, England ultimately faltered under the renewed intensity of the clinical All Blacks, but the 126kg man left an indelible impression on the game.
Revealing a refreshingly straightforward attitude, regardless of the opposition, Vunipola said: “Coming into this game I had a point to prove, maybe I was lucky to be starting after Morgs [Ben Morgan] came on and played well last week.
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“On the pitch you just see them as another player, you don’t see Richie McCaw and think about what he’s done, you just see them running up at you and all you’ve got to do is run as fast as you can and hope for the best.
“Maybe sometimes I became a bit one-dimensional but I did the job I was asked to do by Graham Rowntree.”
Sharing a tearful embrace with Rowntree following the agonising defeat, Vunipola has been a revelation in England’s mobile, hard-edged forward pack during the QBE Internationals. In the opening 20-13 victory over Australia, he captured the emotion of starting a Test match alongside his brother Mako for the first time with brutal ball-carrying and accuracy at the breakdown.
After only five England appearances, Saracens’ Vunipola looks to have sealed his place in the England set-up as the march to Rugby World Cup 2015 continues. But with a maximum of 20 Tests until the tournament starts in earnest on September 18, the England Under 18 and Under 20 graduate knows experiences against the best in the game are vital in his, and the team’s, development.
Discussing his appreciation of the way New Zealand operate after seeing them at close quarters, he said: “It was quick [against their back row] but awesome, that’s one word I’d use for it.
“To see the way they go about it, not only as individuals but as a team, you can see why they’re top of the world. They’re so organised, all their moves are set out, the forwards know what they’re doing. I’m not saying that we don’t but that they’re well drilled.
“To play against the best teams you need to play your best and I think we played our socks off. Maybe the accuracy wasn’t there, but we know that we’re getting there.
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“We were in with a shot but they’re experience told at the end. But the more we play against the best teams, the better we are going to be. And we’ve got to play them four times next year, so hopefully we can do ourselves and the fans justice and do some damage against them.”
Before the June 2014 tour Down Under Vunipola is referring to, England start their RBS 6 Nations campaign with a trip to face France in Paris on February 1. He believes there are overwhelming positives to take forward – the towering physicality of the pack and the unity in the squad to name two – with the New Zealand performance now setting the bar.
“We managed to get back to basics, carry at the heart of them and the boys did that well,” he concluded. “Woody [Tom Wood] and Robbo [Chris Robshaw] were awesome again, with the front-five at the scrums too. We’ve got to keep pushing the boundaries, this is the benchmark to move forward from.
“But it’s not just that, it’s the camaraderie we have as a team. I keep saying it but these three weeks have been some of the best three weeks I’ve ever had with a group of players. Everyone is so welcoming and that is always a great base for a team.”