Why the form of Mako and Billy Vunipola offers England some hope ahead of upcoming tour to South Africa

It has been no coincidence England’s recent demise has mirrored Mako’s own lack of form and Billy’s lack of game time

Sam Peters
Sunday 27 May 2018 20:05
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The Vunipola brothers pose for a family picture after the Premiership final
The Vunipola brothers pose for a family picture after the Premiership final

It was hard to know which of the Vunipola brothers Eddie Jones was happier to see pounding their huge frames into Exeter’s increasingly battered and weary bodies midway through Saturday’s absorbing Premiership Final at Twickenham.

Mako, a shadow of his former self during the Six Nations, produced a man-of-the-match display so explosive, invigorated and skilful he should be forever banished from the front-row union while Billy, injured for the majority of this season, played 60 glorious minutes in the sunshine.

It has been no coincidence England’s recent demise has mirrored Mako’s own lack of form and Billy’s lack of game time and both players being fit and firing for the upcoming tour to South Africa can only dramatically increase Jones’s chances of returning to winning ways.

In their own way, the brothers were equally impressive on Saturday as Saracens produced one of the great Premiership final performances to crush an Exeter team surprisingly comprehensively.

How could we ever have doubted Mark McCall’s men?

With the Vunipolas providing ballast and go-forward and the peerless Owen Farrell pulling the strings behind the scrum, Exeter never stood a chance against last year’s European Champions Cup winners.

Mako was simply immense. The stats show he carried 15 times and made an astonishing 21 tackles but, if possible, his contribution to Saracens’ cause was even greater as he repeatedly screamed the message: thou shall not pass.

Whereas Exeter were able to wear their semi-final opponents Newcastle down with their possession-based phase play, Saracens simply refused to buckle. In the end, Rob Baxter’s team were suffocated and ran out of ideas to breakdown their opponents brutally-physical defensive system.

Rob Baxter's team appeared to run out of ideas (Getty )

Every time they looked up, Exeter saw a Mako Vunipola shaped brick wall in front of them. He seemed to be everywhere. Their hugely promising young fly-half Joe Simmonds will learn much from the experience and come back a better player.

At 27-years-old, Mako will win his 50th England cap against the Springboks in Johannesburg in less than a fortnight and, on this form, he will be the player the home side fear the most.

Jones, who watched smiling in the crowd, would do well to take a note out of McCall’s coaching manual by choosing to give his charges some much-needed TLC at this stage of the season, rather than pushing them relentlessly in training.

The 19 stone loose-head prop’s upturn in form, along with lock Maro Itoje’s, has directly coincided with their return to a club where player welfare is prized above all else. Sometimes, in training terms at least, less can be more.

While Mako’s display was sensational, his younger brother Billy’s was no less impressive or important when viewed through an England lens.

On his day, the young forward is arguably the best No8 in the world and the only England player capable of generating front-foot ball from any position or situation on the field.

His injury-enforced absence during the Six Nations was a hammer blow for England as his ball-carrying ability and defensive work rate proved impossible to replace.

He was not at his best on Saturday, but he was not a long way away and the fact he played an hour of rugby in searing heat at Twickenham, including a superbly taken first-half try which set his side on their way, will be immensely satisfying for the player and his coaches at club and international level.

Billy Vunipola had a very good game (Getty )

Billy carried 15 times in the process, without having quite the impact of Mako, but as fitness tests on his hamstring go, you could not possibly have asked for more.

Exeter’s players cut dejected figures when referee Waynes Barnes – who produced yet another near-faultless display on his 200th Premiership appearance – blew his final whistle. Several, including outgoing veteran No8 Thomas Waldrom, were in tears.

But Baxter’s men can be proud of what they achieved this season, defending their title with vim, vigour and determination and only falling short against a resurgent Saracens team who have entered the realms of greatness following with the latest addition of silverware to an already groaning cupboard.

Few teams could have coped with the Vunipola brothers in this sort of form, directed by the magnificent Farrell. With Itoje back to his best and hooker Jamie George excellent, Jones has the core of his England team back in the shape they need to be.

It bodes very well for the three-Test summer tour against the Springboks. After a dark winter, there might just be some light at the end of the tunnel for Jones and England after all. Thanks be to the Vunipola boys.

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