Analysis: The real threat the Vunipola brothers bring
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Ben Smith takes a look at the combined threat of the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy.
The return of N.8 Billy Vunipola (RPI 82) to the Saracens starting line-up almost paid immediate dividends, with the bullocking loose forward crashing over out wide within the first 10 minutes against Sale.
However, it was the combined threat of both Vunipola brothers that opened things up in the lead-up work to set up Saracens’ opening try.
With both bulldozing ball carriers in the team, Saracens set-piece line out attack becomes much more dynamic, moving to five-man lineouts to utilise the Vunipolas in the back line. They attract so much attention that opposition must utilise their best defenders to neutralize the threat, which creates opportunities for others to be set free.
Saracens used a beautifully executed play with two parts – a loop around and a screen – based around their two primary ball-players, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, and using the Vunipolas diverse skills to create the space.
In the set-up, Mako Vunipola (1) is lined up outside Owen Farrell (RPI 92) and Billy Vunipola (No.8) is on the edge of a 6-player formation. As the play develops, two succinct levels become clear.
The presence of Mako Vunipola (RPI 85) has also drawn the coverage of Sale’s best defender, Tom Curry (No.7). A smart play design by Saracens can make Curry redundant on this play, taking him away from the action.
The pass from the halfback is delivered directly for Mako Vunipola (No.1), and we see two levels forming.
Saracens dual playmakers Owen Farrell (10) and Alex Goode (15) are set up inside of each Vunipola brother in each of the two waves of attack.
On the first wave, Saracens run a loop around concept with Farrell coming around the back. Mako Vunipola is tasked with ball-playing at the line, choosing his short option Alex Lozowski (No.12), or Farrell.
Sale’s defence is passive so Vunipola opts to use the loop around from Farrell while drawing Curry into contact and taking Sale’s premier defender out of play.
At the point of release of Vunipola’s pass, Farrell is still at least a metre inside him, making this pass connection one based on timing and trust, a silky piece of skill for a front runner.
Vunipola can’t see his receiver Farrell, yet has to deliver the ball to allow him to get outside the dummy line of Lozowski (No.12), which he does.
It’s not until that Farrell catches the pass, just on the outside of Lozowski (No.12), that the players in the second wave break into their lines.
Simultaneous to the catch, Billy Vunipola (No.8) breaks to the inside while Alex Goode (No.15) starts to bounce outside underneath.
Billy Vunipola (No.8) runs a hard ‘unders’ line into James O’Connor’s (No.12) channel as a short option for Farrell. With O’Connor and Sam James No.13) on their heels a little bit, Farrell pulls back the pass to Goode.
Again the pass is all based on timing. At the point of Farrell’s release, Goode is at least a metre inside Vunipola, yet he must receive the ball on his outside shoulder.
Farrell plays the pass flat, committing the defender in front of him while O’Connor has opted to commit to Vunipola, also taking himself out of play.
His decision to make the tackle is based in part by the threat that Billy Vunipola brings as a dominant ball carrier – he just won’t take the risk of letting him run free.
Farrell and Vunipola have legally taken out Sale’s interior back line by drawing them into contact, opening up the lane for Goode to play David Strettle (No.14) back on the inside.
Sale centre Sam James (No.13) has been isolated with a 2-on-1 in short space, which at this speed is difficult for any outside centre to defend.
He sat back a little too much and decided not to push the issue and jam in on Goode to try close the play, but came down quite far in the process. He’s too close to bail and not close enough to take Goode with the ball and kill the play.
You have to decide earlier to bail or shoot and in James’ case he did neither.
As Strettle goes through the gap, Goode is able to run around James, maintaining most of his momentum and become a supporting player, while James has to turn around start from almost a standing start to catch up.
This Saracens line break is brought down on the five just short but a few phases later with Sale struggling to reset, Billy Vunipola gets the ball on the edge and powers through some exhausted defence to score.
The ‘idea’ of the Vunipolas undid Sale as much as the reality. Mako was used as a ball-player in the first wave but still committed Curry, while Billy was a dummy runner and got O’Connor to bite.
The ability to execute these ‘secondary’ roles outside of being a one-dimensional battering ram is what makes the two valuable assets to Saracens, who can dress them up in these formations and use them to deceive.
The two ball-players, Farrell and Goode, also delivered perfectly timed line running and decision-making to turn the cogs on this exceptional play, which is one of the most impressive run so far this season.
The beauty of this play is in the complexity of all the required parts to make this happen.
Using six players in such close proximity to pull off a loop around followed by a screen has the tightest margin of error. One mistimed line or one early pass can blow up the whole play, but all these Saracens players were perfectly in sync.
If both Vunipolas can stay healthy then Saracens attack will expand further with more brilliantly designed plays like these, and it’s not hard to see that Saracens form will turn soon. With other top line players like Maro Itoje (RPI 92) also due back, Saracens recent Premiership struggles won’t continue for long with set-piece attack firing like this.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass
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