THERE was plenty to like about England as they remained on course for an elusive grand slam –but perhaps none more so than brilliant No 8 Billy Vunipola’s eye-catching display.
Yet such commanding performances – the hulking Saracens ball-carrier seemed willing and able to destruct defending champions Ireland on his own at times – have become commonplace.
Indeed, some could argue the 23-year-old has already achieved the world-class status England coach Eddie Jones, in one of his first missives since taking charge, has urged Vunipola to attain.
He was sporadic under predecessor Stuart Lancaster, never truly certain of his place or happy with the role he was asked to take, and then, of course, suffered a knee injury in that doomed World Cup game against Wales.
However, if he can maintain this level when the Red Rose take on Wales – and his cousin and fellow No8 Toby Faletau – for the first time since at Twickenham in less than a fortnight’s time, his ascent will almost be complete.
The statistics say he was the leading ball-carrier at Twickenham on Saturday with 18 but it is what he does with each of them that is so impressive; Vunipola hurt Ireland every time.
It was no surprise the 96 metres he made during a fixture England made more difficult than they should, was far more than any other of his team-mates.
“I think a few times I could have done better,” he insisted.
“There was one occasion (Jonathan) Sexton ripped the ball out of my hands and maybe I could have used the options outside, but, overall, I’m happy with my performance and also how the team went when we went down twice to 14 men.
“I think that’s the biggest thing for us, that we came through those periods mostly unscathed.”
Seeing James Haskell and Danny Care yellow-carded for needless second-half fouls did give Jones some concerns as did England’s profligacy with the ball, that threatened to see them lose control of a game they largely dominated. Wales will punish them more ruthlessly.
However, in man-of-the-match Vunipola, England boasted a player able to bring some clarity to their play when needed most but how much has Jones’s encouragement that he can be world-class, aided this recent surge in form?
“He’s given me the freedom to go out and express myself, get the ball in my hands early and try make things happen. That’s what I’m enjoying most. People aren’t told to act in a certain way,” said the former Wasp.
“I’m not having a dig at anyone here but I can go out and try impose myself in any way I can throughout the three games we’ve had. I’ve thrived on that freedom and this is probably the best three games I’ve put together for England. He’s encouraging me to do everything including smashing people in defence. I’m doing okay so, hopefully, I’ll keep that up and not disappoint him.
“It’s massively important we smash people against Wales, too. We saw against France they’ve got very big backs, very strong carriers in (Sam) Warburton, Faletau, but also in the 12/13. “
England led just 6-3 at half-time on Saturday courtesy of Owen Farrell’s two penalties despite having countless chances to get across Ireland’s goalline.
When the depleted visitors went 10-6 ahead via Conor Murray’s converted try in the 45th minute, less than 60 seconds after Haskell’s card for a late tackle on the Ireland scrum-half, Jones’s side could have wilted.
However, instead, they steadied through Farrell’s penalty and, upon Haskell’s return, found enough cohesion to finally cross via splendid Bath wing Anthony Watson and full-back Mike Brown, Farrell improving the latter in the 63rd minute.
Jack Nowell produced a try-saving tackle to deny Robbie Henshaw and Care did likewise on Ultan Dillaine in the 70th minute but hung around on the wrong side, hence his yellow.
More sterling defence saw them home with Vunipola captaining the side in those late stages, Dylan Hartley and Farrell having been replaced. “I wish they’d never told me as it made me quite nervous as I don’t think Romain (Poite) is a big fan of me. He yellow-carded me earlier in the year so I just wanted to keep away as much as possible and not talk to him at all!”
He does not need to. Vunipola’s rugby is doing all the talking.
England: Brown; Nowell, Joseph, Farrell (Daly 66), Watson; Ford, Youngs (Care 60); Marler (M Vunipola 60), Hartley (George 71), Cole, Itoje, Kruis, Robshaw (Clifford 71), Haskell (Lawes 77), B Vunipola. Unused: Hill, Goode.
Ireland: Kearney; Trimble, Henshaw, McCloskey (Zebo 64), Earls; Sexton (Madigan 77), Murray (Reddan 71); McGrath (Healy 60), Best (Strauss 71), Ross (White 60), Ryan (Dillane 64), Toner, Stander (Ruddock 67), van der Flier, Heaslip.
Referee: R Poite (France).