Billy Vunipola doesn’t lose many games, be it with Saracens of England, so Saturday’s defeat by Ireland might have come as a bit of a shock. The England No 8 was unable to make the impact that many, including himself, will have wanted to have, as the Irish defence negated his power game to take the fight to the recently re-crowned Six Nations champions.
That Ireland recorded a 13-9 victory suggests a tight game, yet it was anything but. Ireland dominated the attack, the defence and the lineout, with England’s only advantage coming in the driving maul and the second-half scrum, once Jack McGrath has left the field.
The outcome meant that England’s failure to get a stranglehold on the game, as they so often do, resulted in Vunipola rarely receiving clean ball on the front foot. The return of the 24-year-old has appeared to bolster the English pack, but they were roundly outplayed by their Irish counterparts who delivered another famous performance, much like the one that ended New Zealand’s 18-match winning streak last October.
“I think the most frustrating thing was that maybe we didn’t play the way we wanted to,” Vunipola said after the match. “I guess that was down to Ireland. But, look, we still won the championship so we’re happy with that.
“Obviously the result is not what we wanted, but it happens and we’ll be better for it. It’s been a great run but as people keep saying, it was bound to come to an end and unfortunately it did today. It just shows how hard it is to win a Grand Slam first of all, but even more so to win it back-to-back.”
Despite the disappointment, Vunipola was eager to stress the delight in winning the Six Nations championship or a second year, with the Saracens back-row already looking forwards to the night’s celebrations that would involve “a few chocolates and a few puddings”, though there were much bigger plans in place given his admission that the only rule for the night is “don’t get in trouble”.
Vunipola is one of England’s senior leaders despite his tender age, one of the three vice-captains that Dylan Hartley has, and the last few weeks since he returned to camp after recovering from knee ligament surgery has seen his coach, Eddie Jones, and many of his teammates praising him for saying the right thing at the right time.
Saturday would be no different. The likeable forward still took the time to analyse his own game, and where England went wrong, but stressed that the Grand Slam failure can prove a lesson in how to bounce back given it is the first loss under Jones.
“It was more down to our carrying, myself included,” Vunipola said of where England slipped up. “Just going a bit too high and giving them an opportunity. They’ve got a massive choke tackle threat and it gave them an opportunity to slow the ball down and stop us getting the momentum we’re used to.
“We could have adapted better but a few times we let them back in the game by being a bit too high in the tackle.”
He added: “It was completely down to how well Ireland played. We just didn't execute the way we like to.
“It's like life – these are the chances to learn. If we ever find ourselves in the same situation, how can we develop?
“Hopefully we can do better. I have every confidence in the coaching staff. I've just got to go back to the club and see where we can get to in Europe and the Premiership.
“I think we were always in the game. There was just always an occasion when we let them off the hook when we had them under pressure. We slipped up a few times. We'll learn from it, like I said. Next time, if there is a next time, we'll be better.”
There will be a next time, of course, as England head back to Dublin in two years’ time ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The same happened in 2001 and 2003, where England took on the lessons learned of the Grand Slam failure 16 years ago to beat Ireland, secure the clean sweep and go on to conquer the southern hemisphere nations before claiming the World Cup. Now the onus is on the current side to learn those same lessons.