After such a big victory, after such an impressive performance and after deserved celebrations, there was no more hiding it. The secrets were out.
The build-up to Saturday’s 32-20 victory at the Aviva Stadium saw Eddie Jones and every one of his England players dismiss the suggestion that revenge was a motivational factor. Bit after having the 2017 Grand Slam ripped from their grasp and suffering the embarrassment of Ireland doing the opposite and sealing a clean sweep at Twickenham last year, England had a score to settle.
“I think the game plan only works if the attitude and intent is there and I thought that was there in abundance,” Vunipola explained. “We were pretty motivated for today and we just kind of kept it in camp, kept it to ourselves, and you guys saw the result of great planning by our coaches, great tactical awareness from our generals and just great awareness from the whole team.
“It was a tough, tough game and for us to come out here and win is amazing. We just need to keep improving and see where we can get to next week.
“I thought we were good today. Definitely one of the more memorable wins but there is always scope to get better. The best thing about it is a lot of us are battle-hardened from the scars of last year and where we finished in the Six Nations. Hopefully we stay grounded, we want to win next week and keep backing it up. Next week will be a tough game, France were unlucky to lose against Wales and hopefully we can keep asking a similar question as Wales did.”
The scars for Vunipola run far deeper than most of his teammates. The Saracens No 8 won his 37th international cap at the weekend, but only five of those have come since the start of 2017 due to his nightmare run of shoulder, knee and three separate arm injuries. Each time Vunipola had mounted a comeback, a fresh setback meant more agonising time on the sidelines, robbing England of not just one of the leadership group but one of the truly world class players available to the national team.
There is one other person who knows how that feels. Manu Tuilagi’s injury hell stretches all the way back to 2014, having made just three international appearances across more than four-and-a-half years due to too many injury setbacks to list. But the Leicester centre, just like Vunipola, enjoyed a near-perfect return to the starting line-up as England hardly put a foot wrong in their bonus-point victory over the world’s second-best side.
But while Tuilagi, Vunipola and the rest of the squad that managed to get onto the field - sadly for Dan Robson his debut continues to be pushed back - there was one man in particular who stood out above the rest.
Mako Vunipola was very much the leader of the assault, a hulking tank in attack and a brick wall in defence. Readjusted stats overnight state that the 19-stone loosehead prop made an eye-watering 27 tackles and 11 carries, providing an uncomfortable thorn in the side of the Irish pack. Had Cian Healy’s first-half try been checked by the TMO, it could very easily have been chalked off as replays showed Vunipola’s hand lodged under the ball. Had a second TMO decision gone England’s way, Vunipola could have had a try of his own on the stroke of half-time. For a front-row forward, the number of key moments that he is involved in is truly incredible.
With another man-of-the-match award to his name, Vunipola must have been delighted, right?
“It’s hard with him because he’s just recently had a kid and I didn’t see him smile, I didn’t see him smile today either!” said younger brother Billy. “That’s kind of the attitude that we have, you can never really read him and people are afraid of that but I know that deep down he really cares, he’s just different to other people and we’ve accepted that as a team. Look, he’s been playing awesome and hopefully he can keep that up.
“We’ve learned, as brothers, that trying to be the best in the world always has a limit. If you just try and be the best person, you can always work on that and that kind of shows in his rugby. He’s much free-er and open to trying to dominate other players.
“All the boys were on fire today. I spent a lot of time in the backfield, so I got to watch it, I probably had the best seat in the stadium – not just my brother who was awesome, but everyone around him., I thought (Tom) Curry was awesome and Wils (Mark Wilson). Our second rows and Kyle (Sinckler) and Jamie (George) – our whole team was outstanding and hopefully we can keep that going.”
The task now is for England to repeat that against France on Sunday, and then again in Cardiff after this month when they face Wales, and each time after that to discover the consistency that will be needed to deliver at the Rugby World Cup later this year.
But the people who appear to know that best are the players themselves, with Vunipola refusing to get ahead of himself. “I wouldn’t say it’s rare. It’s just another performance. We look forward to replicating it next week. The only way we can do that is having a tough look at ourselves and enjoying it, first and foremost, and then next week seeing how we as a team and a coaching group feel we can improve the training week and then the best way to play against and attack France.”
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