South Africa have made no secret of the physical threat they are bringing on Saturday to the World Cup final, but Billy Vunipola has a simple response: ‘Bring it on!’, writes Charlie Talbot-Smith.
England’s pack bullied the All Blacks up front in last Saturday’s semi-final in Yokohama, with the No.8 leading the charge with 17 bruising carries into the teeth of the New Zealand defence.
This weekend the challenge gets no easier against an enormous Springbok pack that includes the four towering locks of RG Snyman, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert – not to mention Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit in the back row.
Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus has already said this week that his side’s kick heavy, set-piece style is going to continue in the final, while De Jager also admitted he wanted to fight fire with fire.
But the 26-year-old Vunipola is adamant his side have not hit their peak yet, a week on from the impressive All Black demolition job.
“They are very big people but then again we have a few big blokes on our team," he said.
“They have already come out and said they want to fight fire with fire and I guess we return serve by saying bring it on.
“It is a final and one of those things you have to front up to and one of their biggest assets and something we have been working on. Like Eddie has mentioned they have many different threats and one is their forward pack."
England coaches Eddie Jones and John Mitchell have spoken all tournament about their side’s desire for brutality, especially in defence.
And that is not a job that Vunipola takes lightly, on the eve of the biggest match of his life.
“When coaches throw words like that (brutality) at you, you kind of have to back it up,” he added.
“We have been challenged again to bring the same intensity this weekend, like I said, they have some big players on their team.
“None more so probably than their second rowers and Duane (Vermeulen), those guys are great players and it is a challenge for us up front to give people like Elliot (Daly) and everyone else around him that time and space with the ball to do what they do.”
The dominance of the victory over the All Blacks stunned most onlookers as the defending two-time champions were sent packing from a World Cup for the first time in 12 years.
But Vunipola is adamant that there is plenty more where that came from.
He added: “We set out wanting to be the best in the world, and we have to back up what we did last week.
"It can’t just be a fluke. I think the challenge has been laid out by South Africa - as you saw them taking Japan apart, and Wales, the challenge is going to be up front so we are going to have to be there, both mentally and physically.”
The tournament has been something of a slow burner for Vunipola, who saved his biggest and best performance for the semi-finals.
And the motivation for his hardest-hitting showing so far was driven on by the awesome defence of the pack alongside him, Sam Underhill and Maro Itoje leading the way with a number of shuddering dominant hits.
He added: “It's something that you probably can't measure, but I think the best way to explain it is that it's quite contagious.
“It shows everyone it can be done, so everyone else tries to follow in the slip streams of Underhill, (Tom) Curry, Maro.
“It's very easy when you see it. A lot of people talk about it and it's easy to sit here and say we want to be brutal, but you have to back those words up and those guys are probably the best at leading that area.”
Indeed, it sounds like Vunipola is already itching for battle to commence on Saturday.
The No.8 made specific reference to his individual battle against Vermeulen who was so important in the Boks 2-1 Test series win last summer over England.
The only thing standing in Vunipola’s way this week is probably the constant nagging from his family out here with him in Japan!
“I’ve got a massive family so I’m dealing with (tickets) it first hand, but our focus is on the final and how we can best challenge South Africa and win the game,” he added.
“Family is quite a broad statement. I’m not sure. Like I said two weeks ago, my brother (Mako) deals with it. I feel sorry for him some times. He is the admin point so if you want tickets just ask my brother.
“(Family) are massive but they can be a distraction as well. Tickets, giving you pointers on how to play rugby… my auntie is always great for that. She’s trying to tell me how to play No.8 and giving my brother a few pointers as well. Their support is very important to us but things can also be a distraction. Like I said, we’re trying to lock in on Saturday and see how we can come out firing.”
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