Sunday 21 January 2018

Billy the bulldozer breathes life into England at right time

England's Billy Vunipola of England in action. Photo: Reuters
England's Billy Vunipola of England in action. Photo: Reuters

Eddie Butler

At half-time the score stood at 6-3 to the home team, a rather mournful log of proceedings in its own right, and an even gloomier echo of the halfway stage at Cardiff on Friday night. But this was no dirge; this was a genuine investment in the work that yields points at a later stage. It was miserly, but it was encouraging.

Any questions about why Johnny Sexton stares runners coming at him in the eye and goes high in the tackle - thereby exposing himself to concussion - were answered in the 27th minute. Billy Vunipola, No 1 bulldozer in the warehouse of body-clearers, was heading his way, throttle open and snorting. Sexton stood his ground and did not flinch. They met and Billy spilt the ball.

That's why Sexton goes high. It might sound as if Billy came off second best. Well, on that occasion he did, but in general he was on top form, almost impossible for a single defender to bring down. He spent the first few minutes in an almost hallucinatory world of being the one who would not commit to contact. Billy the dummy, who flipped and slipped his passes away. It did not last. On cue, at the start of the second quarter, just when the Irish forwards could be heard on the ref's microphone shouting this was the moment to find a higher gear, Billy lowered the blade on his machine and began to clear the path. He escaped from a maul, burst through one tackle and was only stopped by a joint-effort between Conor Murray and CJ Stander.

Billy hurt his wrist in the process - but it seemed that might have been another of his dummies. Within seconds, he was on the move again, making the yards that set up the drive for the line by Dylan Hartley - a surge that ended just short. There came after the interval another period of calm for the giant. In these opening minutes, Ireland took play into areas where Billy does not easily go, the wider channels. On its way to Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls, the ball went through the hands of Stuart McCloskey and there were glimpses of a new road-clearer, the centre who matches Billy pound for pound.

It was Ireland's best period and their unexpected quest for width put them on the front foot. Whether there was a direct correlation between this width and England being reduced to 14 is debatable, but it was certainly indicative of a game coming to life, and the loss of James Haskell for a high, shoulder tackle helped the process.

While the wing-forward was away, Ireland took the lead. Murray at last could take a little breather from tackling duties and could squeeze himself over. Sexton converted, adding the points, but helping bring England back to life. The home team now entered their finest phase, full of incisive running and adventure. Their momentum would generate two tries and Billy was very much at the heart of the initial stages - not out wide, but running through Josh van der Flier to set himself on a run at Sexton again.

Just after the outside half had recovered from this latest assault, he had to undergo another ordeal, this time from the altogether smaller Ben Youngs, who caught him a little late - almost imperceptibly so - from behind, just after Sexton had moved the ball on. When next the ball came his way, Sexton dropped it. Perhaps he had his eyes on the posts in anticipation of a long drop; perhaps he sensed another clout coming his way.

Whatever, it answered the question about why outside halves are targeted. Sexton played on and ran the show pretty well, but England were in no mood to surrender their lead now. They could not find the total domination of old that would have piled on the points in the last quarter, but when they were on song and in full flow, it would have pleased Eddie Jones. Not delighted him, but given him reason to shake a few hands for effort in attack.

Jack Nowell would deserve a special mention for tracking back and tackling Robbie Henshaw at the corner, making the centre lose control of the ball as he reached for the line. The way England attacked the rucks under their crossbar (Danny Care would be sent to the sin-bin for a separate offence) spoke of a fury not to allow their line to be breached anywhere. Perhaps most pleasing for a coach not totally convinced by England's fitness levels, was that his team played to the very end. To defend a line when the game is won and the lungs are bursting is harder than running in points against a shattered Irish defence. Ireland ran and ran to the very end and England held them out. A big hand all round.

But a special one for Billy V. He wasn't perfect, in that he dropped a couple of passes, but he put in a full shift, tackling as hard as anyone to the very end. But Eddie will have given his No8 a special pat on his big, broad and no doubt sore back, for how he brought England to life. For somebody who does not look built for speed, Billy pushed this game at pace to a level not seen before in this Six Nations.


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