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How 'fit as I've seen him' Vunipola has put Lions snub to good use

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by James Chance/Getty Images)

Mark McCall has issued a warning to Saracens’ Gallagher Premiership rivals, claiming that Lions reject Billy Vunipola is in the best shape he has been in for years and is ready to hit the ground running when the new season opens at Bristol on Friday night. The England No8 has so far endured a 2021 to forget, his unimpressive run of games in the Six Nations followed by Warren Gatland’s Lions selection snub. 


Amid it all, there was much criticism about how Vunipola looked out on the pitch. For instance, in the wake of England’s opening-round loss at home to Scotland last February, ex-Scotland coach Matt Williams unceremoniously put the boot in while doing some punditry on Irish TV.

“The Saracens players weren’t at the races,” claimed the Australian on Virgin Media. “Vunipola, if we didn’t know the pubs were closed you’d swear he had been in one. He was out of shape. There was no way he was ready for international rugby. Owen Farrell, one of the best players in the world, was way off the mark. Even the great (Maro) Itoje gave away a lot of penalties.”

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Matt Dawson and Mike Brown on their treatment of referees
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Matt Dawson and Mike Brown on their treatment of referees

With Saracens playing the Championship, Vunipola’s struggles with England left him vulnerable to being overlooked for Gatland’s Lions trip to South Africa and that was how it turned out, England outcast Sam Simmonds getting chosen to tour instead even though he hadn’t played for Eddie Jones at Test level since Match 2018. 

Vunipola has since licked his wounds and, according to Saracens boss McCall, he now is primed to remind people about how good a rugby player he actually is. “Good, really good,” said McCall when asked by RugbyPass how Vunipola was shaping up ahead of the start to the 2021/22 season. 

“He has got the bit between his teeth. He is as fit as I have seen him in a long time. His leadership during the course of the pre-season with many other senior players not being here has been wonderful so we are looking forward to seeing him get stuck in,” he added, without revealing how many pounds Vunipola has shed in pre-season in preparation for the new season kick-off.  


“Usually Billy putting weight on doesn’t mean as fit as he has ever been so he is exactly the way we want him to be. He has trained really hard, he hasn’t had any hiccups in pre-season so he will be hitting the ground running on Friday night.”

Missing out on the Lions was essentially a double whammy for Vunipola as he pulled out injured in 2017 after getting originally selected for that year’s trip to New Zealand. The No8 has now had 19 weeks to come to terms with his exclusion from the squad chosen by Gatland in early May, but McCall is uncertain his player is fully over the snub.  

“I’m not sure that he definitely is (over it),” continued the Saracens boss ahead of Friday’s trip to Ashton Gate. “I haven’t talked to him a lot about it in the last couple of months. I know he was hugely disappointed not to go and sometimes those things take time to get over.”



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