There were some initial concerns that very little had changed under Jones’s new regime, but Vunipola is providing evidence to the contrary.
When Eddie Jones announced his first squad as England head coach, many fans had concerns that very little was set to change from the ill fated Stuart Lancaster era. Given the squad selection remained relatively unchanged, it is no wonder that fans began to wonder if England were set to continue business as usual.
The opening game of the Six Nations unsurprisingly also resulted in much of the same. The starting XV were largely unchanged from last years Six Nations, and the tactics for the most part appeared, at least on the face of it, to be largely unchanged. Fortunately, a narrow win helped to dispel some of the concerns being raised by fans and the media.
Things have remained largely the same since the first game against Scotland with Jones persisting with the same team (injuries aside), whilst the game plan doesn’t seem too different to what we saw last year. In fairness, Lancaster had put some solid foundations in place, but it was clear things needed to kick on a little this year.
However, whilst many fans may still be wondering what has changed, even if three wins out of three have kept any criticism at bay, they only have to look at the form of Billy Vunipola to see exactly what impact Jones is having on England, both individually, and as a collective group of players.
On the face of it, Vunipola’s stats are incredible impressive – 56 carries have so far yielded 207 metres in just three games. Vunipola is single handedly out-performing the rest of the England pack when it comes to metres made ball in hand. However, when you dig a little deeper things are not quite as they seem. Under Stuart Lancaster, Vunipola was actually making more metres per carry on average (3.609 compared to 3.569).
Whilst statistically this may suggest a regression (however minor), Vunipola is now being talked about as a genuinely world class player, whereas under Lancaster he came in for some criticism, and even lost his place in the starting XV to Ben Morgan. So on the face of it, Vunipola has become a less effective ball carrier, but is now seen as a much improved player.
What we have to look at is the actual impact Vunipola is now making on games. Whilst he is making largely the same amount of ground, it is where he is making those metres that is really showing under Jones. He is constantly getting his side over the gainline and drawing in defenders, whereas under Lancaster, the metres made weren’t necessarily above and beyond what any other player could have achieved.
The other factor now is that Jones is utilising Vunipola as a ball player. Instead of requiring him to simply run hard at the opposition, he is now being used to draw in defenders before passing the ball on to create space for players outside of him. This is the most telling improvement in his game and really begins to show how Jones is helping turn him into one of the most well rounded players in the England team.
Vunipola himself has been vocal in his support of Jones, both after his appointment, and throughout the Six Nations so far. He seems to be thriving having been treated as an individual, rather than a cog in a larger machine. He has also expressed his pleasure at being given greater freedom in which to play.
“We’re not being told to act in a certain way. I’m not having a dig at anyone here, but I can go out there and try to play my game, imposing myself in any way I can.
“He’s given me that freedom and that’s something I’ve thrived on so far and hopefully I can carry that on.
“This is most probably the best three games I’ve put together for England. That was the biggest thing for me, that consistency. But also playing well.
“I think I played OK last Six Nations but I wasn’t at the level everyone else was at.
“Now I think I’m a bit fitter than I was this time last year and I’m able to do what I said I always wanted to do at international level and I’m happy with that.”
The other telling aspect of that quote is the fact he mentions his improved fitness levels. This has ensured he is now able to play the full 80 minutes of every game whilst still remaining an effective baller carrier throughout. Given that he is only just 23, he now has the time to improve and develop his all round play knowing that he has the physical attributes to thrive at the top level.