Rejuvenated England forward Billy Vunipola has revealed that a conversation with Eddie Jones was at the heart of the reason why he came away from the Autumn Nations Cup feeling he had got to level of performance he had not enjoyed for a number of years.
A broken arm meant that the No8 missed the four Six Nations matches which England played in the early part of 2020 before the lockdown caused the suspension of rugby. However, he returned to help his country clinch the title with an October win in Rome and he then went on to wield further trophy-winning influence in the four-game Nations Cup.
Come the early December finish, Vunipola had registered a 309-metre carry from 75 runs as well as a tackle count of 68. That was enough for him to be the starting England forward who carried the most in each of the five matches played while he was also top of the starting pack tackle count in three of those games.
Eight weeks on from the campaign-ended Twickenham win over France, Vunipola has now admitted that a candid pep talk with England boss Jones was pivotal in helping him to be the feared wrecking-ball that he used to be.
“The thing I needed to improve was freeing myself up in terms of not being afraid of getting injured,” explained Vunipola over Zoom from the England pre-Six Nations camp at St George’s Park ahead of the February 6 opener versus Scotland at Twickenham.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 27, 2021
“That didn’t hold me back but didn’t allow me to express myself as I normally would do. Being reckless is not a trait that you want but sometimes in my game how I play my best is just throwing my body into things 100 per cent.
“Maybe sometimes I wasn’t doing that. To have that conversation with Eddie was pretty calming because it allowed me to go out and do that because I knew that he backed me, but also it was important that it came from me. I want to be in this team as much as everyone else and I needed to show that.
“After the autumn I thought I got to a level where I haven’t been for a few years. Me and Eddie had a good chat about it. That was the whole reasoning behind me going straight back into training because I want to come back and start off where I left off.
“I’m in a position where I can do that now. I’m confident in my body physically. My weight and everything else is a constant battle but I feel like at the moment I’m on top of it. I’m excited to show what I can do in the games.”
Other England players at relegated Saracens opted to use the nine-week gap in between Test matches as an opportunity to train like it was a pre-season. Vunipola, though, instead opted to join in with club training and he even played in the recent Trailfinders Cup defeat at Ealing as he felt he is happiest when playing as much as possible.
“When I left the autumn it was a toss-up between taking a week or two off or going straight back into training. I benefit most from moving and staying moving so I went straight back into training,” said.
“I know my wife wasn’t very happy about it but I wanted to come into this camp ahead of where I was before the autumn and that is what I did. Went back training, joined in with the squad, played against Ealing and carried on training. Some of the other boys started with a pre-season block which I don’t particularly enjoy, so that is why I went straight back into training.”
Vunipola hopes that his return to his best form with England can now continue into the Six Nations and last the whole way through to the Lions tour in South Africa, especially as he missed out in 2017 in New Zealand due to injury.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 27, 2021
“100 per cent,” he replied when asked does he want to tour. “I said this four years ago, a lot of people are afraid of saying I want to go in the Lions tour and making it clear but that is one of my goals throughout this Six Nations, to put myself in the shop window to know that I can perform at the highest level.
“I’m keen to go on that plane and play for the Lions. If it goes ahead it goes ahead, but my focus is playing really well for England. That is the only thing I can do.”
England won back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2016 and 2017 and Vunipola’s message to his teammates as they seek to achieve another two-in-a-row in the championship it to never get bored of winning. “The biggest lesson is just don’t get bored of winning. You can never get bored of winning because after that 2017 year we lost those games five in a row and then it was tough to get out of that rut.
“We have a target over our head and everyone is trying to build us up as favourites, which is fine, but we have got to take that mantra on and keep playing the way we play. I know that Eddie had talked about wanting to play every eventuality that plays out in a game, so we have got to be ready for what teams bring and that is what we are preparing to do.
“It’s not an easy thing but it’s something we are trying to push. We are trying to change how people attack and look at the way we play the game. I know it probably didn’t unfold the way we wanted in the autumn but we have another opportunity to do it now.”
"It’s a tough one not being able to give your all when you are player of Joe Marler’s calibre"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 26, 2021
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now