INTERVIEW: Billy Vunipola looks ahead to England vs Ireland

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England star: Billy Vunipola.

Billy Vunipola has dubbed Saturday’s Six Nations clash with Ireland as England’s “first major test” under Eddie Jones and claims the Red Rose are already a stronger unit under the Australian’s guidance.

England host defending champions Ireland who are still smarting from a narrow defeat in Paris a fortnight ago which has left their hopes of a third successive title all-but over.

Vunipola, who has arguably been England’s stand-out performer from the opening two fixtures of the tournament, has praised Jones’ impact since his arrival as head coach in November, but still reserved praise for former coach Stuart Lancaster, who handed him his England debut in 2013.

“It was Stuart that first gave me a chance at international level and I’ll always be grateful for that – he’s a big part of where I am now,” Vunipola told Sport360. “But with Eddie it’s something different, it’s a new experience. I’m learning new things and developing parts of my game I hadn’t really focused on before.

“He brings loads of experience to the squad and it’s a different atmosphere in the camp. The best thing about us as a group is that we are willing to knuckle down and we’ve realised the areas we are weak in and worked on those.

“Eddie’s looked at the aspects of our game that kept letting us down when it mattered – especially from the World Cup.”

Of primary importance to Jones has been restoring England’s traditional set-piece dominance but while it was rock solid against the Scots, the lineout in particular was inconsistent in Rome during their 40-9 victory over the Italians.

It’s an area of the field that is sure to receive a considerable examination against a physical and muscular Irish pack, with Joe Schmidt a coach who also demands set-piece excellence.

“No disrespect to Italy or Scotland, but Ireland is our first major test. They haven’t had the best start to the tournament, but we are all aware of the threat they still pose,” Vunipola added.

“Players like Jonny Sexton when they’re on their game can be match winning, but in the game plan we have and have been working on we’re confident we can do the job.

“I think from our games so far it’s showed how hard we are working. They may not have been vintage performances or our best, but knuckled-down and ground results out when we’ve needed to. I mean in the first-half against Italy we had to really work and in the second-half we showed the type of threat we now are under Eddie.”

As well as devising his team’s gameplan, Jones has been taking snipes at the Irish in the lead-up to the contest, namely the inclusion of fly-half Johnny Sexton.

The No10 suffered a “whiplash injury” against the French and Jones claimed Sexton’s parents “would be worried” about his long-term health.

Privately Ireland are understood to have been frustrated by Jones’ comments, especially given Sexton’s head injury history having suffered four concussions between 2013 and 2014 but captain Rory Best said: “There’s a lot of things
going on in the media, we have enough going on with our own stuff.

“We’re not worried about that. We’ve got to make sure we’re as close to perfect as we can be.

“Everything else apart from the rugby is a sideshow that we don’t want to get involved in.

“All we know is that Johnny’s a quality player.”

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