Vunipola out to put All Blacks straight on back foot

EXCITED: England's Billy Vunipola.
EXCITED: England's Billy Vunipola.
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Billy Vunipola will embrace New Zealand’s performance of the Haka on Saturday as the moment to prove he is ready to “rock ‘n’ roll”.

The All Blacks are targeting a fifth successive victory over next year’s World Cup hosts when they open the QBE Series with South Africa, Samoa and Australia also visiting Twickenham this month.

Vunipola, England’s starting No 8 against Richie McCaw’s world champions, has faced the Haka three times in his 10 Test appearances and views the Maori war dance as the chance to focus his mind for the battle to come.

“It lifts the All Blacks, but I think it also lifts the opposition as much as them,” said Vunipola.

“They’re laying down the challenge and are asking you: ‘are you ready to rock ‘n’ roll’?

“It’s always special and it’s a massive honour to go up against it. When it’s being performed, you’re standing there thinking ‘right let’s go, they’ve laid it on so let’s match them or better’.

“If you’re not ready for what is coming they will smash you in the first 10 minutes and then you’ll be on the back foot consistently. If you are ready, then you are in for a great game.

“You look around and can see how much it means to them in their facial expressions and by how hard they hit themselves.

“It’s special to stand in front of it, especially with the crowd around you creating a massive atmosphere.”

Vunipola appreciates the importance of a strong start against New Zealand after last year’s Twickenham showdown, which preceded a 3-0 whitewash on the summer tour.

Twelve months after the All Blacks had been thumped 38-21 at the same venue, they raced into a 17-3 first-quarter lead with tries from Julian Savea and Kieran Read before repelling an England fightback to prevail 30-22.

“You need to be ready for the level of physical intensity they bring,” said Vunipola.

“On the summer tour, they were a bit shocked at how quickly we came out of the blocks, just as we had been when they started strongly this time last year at Twickenham.

“We can’t allow them to do that again – we have to come out quickly and then play for the whole 80 minutes.”

McCaw will be at the helm as New Zealand seek to issue a statement of intent in their last visit to Twickenham before next year’s World Cup.

Vunipola has faced McCaw in each of the three times he has played the All Blacks and while the 134-cap veteran has a reputation with some for pushing the laws to breaking point while evading the attention of referees, England’s bulldozing back-row can only admire his rugby intelligence.

“McCaw floats around waiting for that opportunity to make a game-changing impact, reading things really well,” said Vunipola.

“He works with the referee by not complaining after decisions are made. Refs like that – he doesn’t turn around and squabble with the ref, he just gets on with the game. He sets a really good example for his team.

“You have to look after your basics and if you don’t give McCaw any space over the ball at the breakdown or show a hint of weakness then he can’t exploit that situation. As a back-row unit, we have to slow their ball down, legally. Teams struggle against New Zealand when they get too much front-foot ball.

“A couple of weeks ago, Australia slowed their ball down and made the breakdown a massive fight.”

Head coach Stuart Lancaster names his starting XV today with Bath wing Semesa Rokoduguni among three uncapped players included in the match-day 23 announced on Tuesday.

Rokoduguni is to start on the right wing with Jonny May on the left, while second-row George Kruis and back-three cover Anthony Watson are in line to make their debuts from the bench.

Rokoduguni is a serving soldier in the British Army who has seen action in Afghanistan with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

Watson has been preferred ahead of the more experienced Alex Goode in a major vote of confidence for the 20-year-old.

England will field a previously untried centre pairing of Kyle Eastmond – Aviva Premiership’s form player – and Brad Barritt.

Eastmond experienced mixed fortunes during the summer tour to New Zealand, excelling in the first Test only to be replaced at half-time of the third when his defensive frailties were exposed.

With Manu Tuilagi ruled out for the entire autumn series with a groin injury and Luther Burrell missing because of a hand problem, Eastmond has now been given the chance to redeem himself.