Billy Vunipola believes he is thriving upon the freedom afforded to him by new England head coach Eddie Jones. The bruising Saracens number eight was instrumental in ensuring that a new era for English rugby got off to a winning start with a stellar performance against Scotland earlier this month and he proved his ability to consistently break the gain line once again on 27 February during a 21-10 victory over Ireland.
A formidable and often borderline unstoppable ball-carrier, Vunipola gained deserved man of the match honours during Jones' first outing at Twickenham and helped to ensure that England's hopes of scooping a first Six Nations grand slam for 13 years remain intact. The 23-year-old made 96 metres on 18 carries despite injuring his shoulder while trying to go over for an early try and is evidently delighted with the ways in which the new regime has impacted upon his personal form.
"I think the freedom to express yourself," he told reporters when asked what he was enjoying most about the different setup. "People aren't told to act in the same way. I'm not having a dig at anyone here, but I can go out there and try and play my game, try to impose myself in any way I can throughout the three games that we've had. He's given me that freedom and that's something that I've thrived on so far and hopefully I can carry that on."
When asked if this was the best three-game stretch of his career, Vunipola added: "For England? Yeah, most probably. That was the biggest thing with me, that consistency. But also playing well. I played OK in the last Six Nations but I just wasn't at the level that everyone else was at and now I think I'm a bit fitter than I was at this time last year. I'm able to do what I said I always wanted to do at international level and I'm happy with that."
Jones has been effusive in his praise of Vunipola during the opening weeks of the Six Nations, expressing a firm view that he can go on to become the best in the world at his position. That sense of belief was reinforced by the decision to hand him one of the vice-captain roles against Ireland, a job he seemed to take in his stride after skipper Dylan Hartley was replaced by Jamie George towards the end of the second half.
Ireland were pushing very hard to engineer a late fightback at that stage, but a staunch defensive effort - including two try-saving tackles from Jack Nowell and debutant Elliot Daly - ensured that England will welcome championship rivals Wales to London in two weeks time still undefeated.
"I didn't really change my game at all," Vunipola said of his new position. "I wish they never told me because it made me quite nervous. And obviously [referee Romain Poite] Romain's not a big fan of me...He yellow carded me earlier in the year so I just wanted to keep away from him as much as possible and not talk to him at all. Through that period, the boys did really well. There was a scrum on our own five, we defended a maul very well. We came out of that period where we could have made the game tighter very well."