Vunipola set to start against Wales as Lancaster prepares to ring changes
England look set to make changes for their crunch Pool A clash against Wales at Twickenham next Saturday. They won the opening fixture of the World Cup at Twickenham on Friday night, defeating Fiji 35-11, but it was not a convincing performance, with England’s bench settling matters in the second half and claiming a bonus point for four tries with the very last play.
“We’ve never said we were going to pick the same team week in, week out,” Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, said. The most likely change is at No 8 where Ben Morgan could be replaced by Billy Vunipola. Both the Vunipola brothers, Billy and prop Mako, were among the replacements, along with Joe Launchbury, Sam Burgess, Owen Farrell and Richard Wigglesworth, who impressed hugely against Fiji.
“We were a bit lateral towards the end of the first half and certainly at the start of the second,” Lancaster said. “We needed some energy from the bench and they all brought a bit more punch to the performance and we got quicker ball. Sam [Burgess] did well but equally Mako and Billy Vunipola did well, Owen [Farrell] did well, Wiggy [Wigglesworth] did well at the breakdown, Launchbury had an excellent 25 minutes. It was a collective.”
Launchbury could easily be named in the starting line-up against Wales as England look to beef up their forward effort. Geoff Parling was originally introduced to sort out England’s lineout problems, but that has led to decreased power at the scrummage and England have also missed Launchbury’s skills at the breakdown.
“The forwards were a bit frustrated with the breakdowns, scrum and lineout,” Lancaster said. “They are the forwards’ bread and butter and we’ve got some work to do in that area.”
England had the weekend off and will reconvene in Bagshot tonight, but Lancaster insisted the work up front would be high priority when they begin training on Tuesday. “Monday will be about review and analysis,” he said. “Tuesday is unit day and scrum, lineout, breakdown will be top of the list.”
Burgess could push Brad Barritt, who was disappointing, for a place but it is more likely that Farrell will put pressure on George Ford for the fly-half spot as England face a stormy and emotional match against their old enemy.
Lancaster will announce his team on Thursday. “We’ll watch Wales’s game,” he said. “We’ll decide our selection Monday, Tuesday. We select it on a week-by-week basis, and we will decide what’s best to play Wales. We know them pretty well, we know the quality of the players they’ve got, and how well Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards will have them.
“I think all our players will be pleased to have got the four tries [against Fiji] but they will all think that we need to be better to beat Wales.”
Billy Vunipola had the last word on the field and off it on Friday night. Scoring England’s fourth try with the last play of the game ensured that a crucial bonus point was garnered, but then he later left observers gobsmacked when confessing that he did not even know that a bonus-point system was in operation.
No wonder that it is so often said that he is so young. He is only 22, after all. But it is not as if it is going to affect his game, is it? Vunipola knows only one way. Give him the ball and he will look to bullock his way as far down field as possible. He is hardly going to kick possession away.
Apparently the England squad had been reminded of the bonus-point scenario on Friday at training, but Vunipola clearly had other things on his mind. Like causing havoc once he was given his chance off the bench so that he could prove that he should be the starting No 8 once and for all.
“I wanted to prove a point when I came on because all the week in training I had been chomping at the bit to get my opportunity,” he said. “I can’t let that emotion go away when I come on. You do get frustrated [being on the bench], but if I am sitting there sulking and giving up bad body language to the other players, then I am not doing my bit to help the squad. I am not backing the cause up and could affect the team. It’s a very tough position to be in, but you have to deal with it.”
Deal with it he did on Friday because his performance was such that it seems inconceivable that he will not be selected ahead of Ben Morgan in the starting line up against Wales next Saturday at Twickenham.
“Morgs and I have got a good relationship, so whoever gets the tap
on the shoulder, the other person is happy for them,” he says. “Everyone wants to start, but the position I am in at the moment is very tough and the competition is very high, but that’s international rugby.”
It will be international rugby at its most ferocious against Wales, too. “We went down to Cardiff in the Six Nations and turned them over,” Vunipola said. “So they will want to put the record straight and come to our place and do that to us.
“We have to be careful and do everything right both physically and mentally. Wales are a very good team. It’s going to be a massive game against our big rivals, it’s going to be tough.”
Of course, Wales means much to Vunipola as he spent a good part of his childhood there with brother, Mako, alongside Toby Faletau, while their respective fathers played Welsh club rugby. It is Faletau whom he will probably line up against next Saturday.
“I have a lot of family friends in Ebbw Vale who helped us when we were growing up,” Vunipola said. “There’s a lot of rivalry between England and Wales, but it is a country Mako and I like. Mako has a strong Welsh accent, which is strange for a Tongan. He’s been lazy with it and I think he likes it so he wants to keep it, though he doesn’t speak any Welsh.”
So it promises to be an interesting week for all concerned. It might be even more interesting if Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, decides to whip up a storm, as he does not appear to fear doing, even if a personal opinion is that he usually just answers questions honestly. The so-called ‘mind games’ are often no such things.
“Obviously for them, they have lost two very key players [in Leigh Half- penny and Rhys Webb],” Vunipola said. “Everyone is having a go at Gatland, his back is against the wall so he has to come out fighting. It doesn’t interest me, to be honest. It only works if you react to it, but it is something that we don’t really pay any attention to.
“I am more interested in the fact that we are playing Wales at home in a World Cup and I am in it. He is very good at them, very good at them, he is a seasoned professional at what he does, he wins a lot of games and trophies. So we cannot get into that kind of nitty-gritty stuff.”
That can wait for the pitch. Then there will be plenty of it, especially for Vunipola who, if selected, must ensure that England win the gain-line battles. Against Wales that is always the most important facet of the game and few can make such an impression in that area like Vunipola.
Unstoppable force: Billy Vunipola goes on the charge against Fiji
Power player: Billy Vunipola made a big impression when he came on and is likely to start against Wales next weekend