By Mitch Phillips
TOKYO (Reuters) – England’s Billy Vunipola is perhaps close to fulfilling coach Eddie Jones’ prediction that he could become the best number eight in the world but that has not stopped his aunt offering advice as he heads into the Rugby World Cup final.
Vunipola was at his bullocking best in England’s semi-final victory against New Zealand last weekend and his head to head with South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen is likely to be one of the key duels in Saturday’s title match.
Vunipola told reporters on Tuesday that having so many of his extended family in Japan was a help, but that it also came with pitfalls.
“They’re massive but they can be a distraction as well,” Vunipola said.
“Tickets, trying to give you pointers on how to play rugby – my auntie is always great for that. Their support is always important to us but my auntie is trying to tell me how to play number eight and telling things to my brother (prop Mako) as well. Luckily he looks after all the admin.”
Vunipola needs no reminders of what Vermeulen brings, having lost to the South African on all three occasions he has faced him for England.
“He just played better,” he said. “I’ve played against them a few times and he’s got up so I’m going to try my best to win that little battle.
“I played against him last summer and he was monumental in terms of getting them those two victories. Not just me, but we’ve got to try and negate his influence.”
Having seen how South Africa approached their game against Wales on Sunday England are not expecting a radical change of tack in the final.
Faf de Klerk is likely to rain high balls down on England’s defence and send his big men crashing in to them. It will not be a place for shrinking violets.
“What we are going to witness are the two most powerful rugby teams in the world,” said defence coach John Mitchell.
“They are both strong, well coached, the gain-line is going to be huge.”
England dominated it against New Zealand, with man of the match lock Maro Itoje and fearless flankers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry setting the tone with a series of devastating hits.
Vunipola said that seeing those dominant tackles and how they put opponents on the back foot was contagious.
“It shows everyone it can be done, so everyone else tries to follow in the slipstream,” he said. “But it’s very easy to sit here and say we want to be brutal, you have to back those words up.”
Another man likely to be very busy on Saturday is fullback Elliot Daly, though he was sticking to the party line that dealing with De Klerk’s howitzers was a joint responsibility and will be pleased to have wingers Jonny May and Anthony Watson on board as both are excellent under the high ball.
“In the last couple of games we have faced the least number of kicks in a few months,” Daly said. “Watching how South Africa went about the Wales game there will probably be more aerial threats and it’s something we’ll look at as a team.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)