Rebuilding the 'Wrecking Ball': How Billy Vunipola got back to his best

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Rebuilding the 'Wrecking Ball': How Billy Vunipola got back to his best - GETTY IMAGES
Rebuilding the 'Wrecking Ball': How Billy Vunipola got back to his best - GETTY IMAGES

Looking back, even Billy Vunipola seemed to acknowledge that something was wrong with his game last season. Speaking in the aftermath of England's first defeat to Scotland at Twickenham since 1983 during the Six Nations, the No 8 took the team's failure to heart.

"I take a lot of the blame because a lot of my work is helping put the team on the front foot and I didn’t do that," Vunipola said. "I just didn’t put myself in the right positions."

England ended up finishing in fifth place, with Vunipola coming off in the second half of the final game against Ireland as his side were well beaten in Dublin. And for a while, that appeared to be that as far as England was concerned.

This season he was left out of England's first training camp, then the squad for the autumn Tests, then the Six Nations. The No 8 who at one point England could not be without was suddenly surplus to requirements, with Eddie Jones favouring Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds.

But, away from the England fold, back with Saracens in the Premiership, Vunipola was in no mood to give up. The signs have been there since Saracens' very first game of the season that Vunipola has mastered his craft again, winning a penalty here following this run back against Bristol in September.

Vunipola's improved weight appeared to be a factor. Speaking before facing Bristol, McCall was full of praise and highlighted that Vunipola was "as fit as I have seen him for a long time. He is exactly the weight we want him to be".

The improvement in Vunipola's statistics back that up. While there is no data available for the Championship, when comparing Vunipola's performances for England last season with his efforts for Saracens in 2021/22, there are increases across the board for carries across the gain line, total carries, defenders beaten, offloads and turnovers won.

The leap in average metres gained is particularly eye-catching, going from 27.85 in 2020/21 to 46.67 in 2021/22, highlighting how effective he has been not just from the base of the scrum but also on kick returns. The impact he was struggling to make with England 16 months ago has returned - the wrecking ball is back.

No other forward in the Gallagher Premiership this season made more carries or gained more metres, which is impressive, but a mind-blowing statistic is that Vunipola made 232 passes while popping up all over the field and linking play from scrums and line-outs, which was almost double the number made by the second-highest forward, London Irish's Rob Simmons with 118.

Also, if you need proof that a back-row is feeling confident then launching 50:22 kicks down the field is probably a good indicator.

As entertaining as that 50:22 kick was, Vunipola's overall performance that day against Bath was sensational - perhaps he just likes the West Country - playing so well in Saracens' 71-17 thrashing that McCall described him as "unreal" and said he would be "amazed" if Vunipola was not in the squad for the Six Nations.

It turned out he wasn't, but as Jones revealed last week, there was a masterplan in place. Billy and Mako Vunipola both re-signing with Saracens on Christmas Eve in a nice festive gift for their fans was a sign that both still had futures with England even if the national squad selection said otherwise.

Both could have stayed in England out of devotion to Saracens, of course, but the cheques coming in from France and Japan would have been hard to turn down if their Test careers were over.

Except that was never the case. Jones revealed last week that "I would go and see [Billy] before each selection and have a chat about where he was at", adding the two had kept in regular contact.

A recall was coming, but Vunipola's performance in the Premiership final and the injuries to Simmonds and Dombrandt practically allocated him a seat on the flight to Perth.

As Jones put it last week, even though Saracens were defeated Vunipola "was exceptional, he looked like a Test No 8".

No one at Twickenham made more carries or clean breaks or beat more defenders, with McCall describing Vunipola afterwards as a "shining light", perhaps referring back to this crucial turnover with Leicester in position to strike and already up by six points.

The power has always been there, but add in the excellent footwork (and passing) Vunipola displays below and England possess a real threat.

Trimmer, hungrier and with his confidence renewed, it's worth remembering that Vunipola is only 29. Don't be shocked if on his England return he takes this series in Australia by storm.

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