Billy Vunipola: England’s wrecking ball bouncing back to his best

The clue is in the title. Billy Vunipola’s autobiography is called Wrecking Ball for a reason.

The clue is in the title. Billy Vunipola’s autobiography is called Wrecking Ball for a reason.

The England No.8 returns to club colours this weekend to carry Saracens’ chief threat against Glasgow Warriors.

And a brief examination of the 26-year-old’s 2019 Guinness Six Nations as a whole is proof enough that he is back to something approaching his best after a couple of injury-hit campaigns.

This year was the first Guinness Six Nations where Vunipola started all five games for the Red Rose since the 2016 campaign.

Few England fans need reminding of that superb Championship, England sweeping all before them to claim a first Grand Slam in 13 years.

And Vunipola was the talisman behind their clean sweep – claiming the Man of the Match award in three of the five victories and only narrowly missing out to Stuart Hogg for Player of the Championship.

The No.8 backed that up in Australia the following summer in the Wallaby whitewash to put himself firmly in the world-class bracket.

And the Saracens man looks to be back to something like that form after struggles with injury across 2017 and 2018.

The Red Rose racked up 24 tries in all, the second-most ever in Championship history.

And while Vunipola didn’t cross the whitewash himself, he was the key to their fluid and free-scoring attack.

In this year’s Championship, Vunipola totalled 71 carries – say the stats, powered by AWS – more than any other player across all six countries.

From those 71 carries he totalled 231 metres with ball in hand – the most of any forward in the Championship.

England went to him early and often and invariably he got his side over the gainline and on the front foot.

His 27 gainline successes ranked only behind James Ryan of Ireland and Braam Steyn of Italy.

But Vunipola is not just used as a battering ram by Eddie Jones.

The No.8 has added so much to his game and is even used by both club and country as a distributor in phase play to attract defenders and then release teammates.

His five offloads across the Championship put him in the top five across all players.

And he set his stall out in that regard right from the off, producing a fine offload to Ben Youngs inside the first 90 seconds of their opener in Dublin, three passes later and Jonny May was over in the corner.

He produced 29 passes in total across the Championship and even one sublime kick from hand in their win over Italy.

Saracens have a swiss army knife No.8 on their hands – not just a blunt instrument.

Almost as important as Vunipola’s returning attacking instincts, was his work rate.

When at his best, Vunipola is a tireless animal at the base of the scrum and in the 2019 Championship he proved that work ethic is still intact.

In addition to starting all five games, he also stayed on the pitch for the full 80 minutes in four of them.

His total of 384 minutes played was the second most of any forward in the entire Championship, only Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony completed the full 400.

He made 49 tackles, only four Englishmen made more, managed two breakdown turnovers and even rose to claim two lineouts.

Clearly Vunipola’s game is about more than just running over defenders.

One of Jones’ first moves on taking over with England was to promote his No.8 to a vice-captaincy role.

And while he was absent for large parts of the last two seasons, his influence on this England side cannot be doubted.

He’s a key contributor in that regard for Saracens as well.

And while he has just eight starts for his club this season, he has already managed four tries in that time, including against Glasgow Warriors in their second Pool stage meeting in January.

With Calcutta Cup memories still fresh, the No.8 will want to prove his worth on the European stage once more on Saturday.

“Everyone judges me to a different standard now, because of the games I played a few years ago, and that’s the pressure that’s been put on me, so I’ve just got to find my way to that level.”