'I was seriously ill and battling for my life. At times I felt like just stopping'
Billy Vunipola has been told to put a nightmare year that has seen him break his arm three times behind him and regain confidence in his body to ensure he will be a major force for double chasing Saracens and England at next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The Saracens No.8, who is set to return against Worcester on Saturday, suffered a third break – this time to his left arm – in 2018 during October’s Champions Cup win at Glasgow having previously broken his right arm in January and again in June. Vunipola missed England’s Six Nations campaign and the November clashes against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.
During his time out of the game, Vunipola, 26, has received support from fellow players and the highly skilled medical and strength and conditioning teams at Saracens.
One of the most important voices has been World Cup winner Schalk Burger, in his final season with the club, who is acutely aware of the physical and mental toll injury setbacks can have following his own personal experiences. He has warned Vunipola it is key to get the confidence back in your body to believe it can take big hits and not break down again.
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Burger, who won 86 caps for South Africa, was so ill in 2013 from bacterial meningitis after having a cyst close to his spinal cord removed that his family were advised to prepare for the worst. He pulled through and said: “I was seriously ill and battling for my life. At times I felt like just stopping, but I could literally feel myself then slipping and would have to fight again.” In 2006 Burger had suffered a serious neck injury which required cervical fusion surgery and his style of rugby has left him nursing numerous injuries.
With Billy, the younger of the Vunipola brothers, dealing with those repeated injury set-backs, Burger has been offering his experience in one-to-one conversations during the periods of rehabilitation that the 36 times capped England No8 has been forced to undertake to regain full fitness.
Burger said: “We just want Billy to have a good run of rugby because it is tough to mentally go through this kind of bad run of injuries. However, in most cases this kind of run blows by, even though at the time it feels like it is never going to end. Billy wants to get playing again particularly with the World Cup in Japan next year, but first and foremost for Saracens.
“I have a great relationship with Billy and like me he is quite a relaxed character and we sit and have a coffee. I sympathise with him a hell of a lot because I had a bad run of injuries during my career and he is going through one of those at the moment.
“One of the biggest things about a recurring injury which puts you out for a long time is that it takes time to get confidence back in your body. There is nothing wrong mentally and Billy is raring to go again, but he will have taken a bit of a knock confidence wise in terms of your body.
“He has suffered some freakish injuries, breaking both of his arms – one twice – added to the big shoulder operation and the knee surgery that he has also had since I have been here.
“Obviously, he is one of those players you want fit and playing. Unfortunately, in rugby you cannot wrap anyone up in cotton wool and at some time you have to get back out there and play rugby and we are all looking forward to getting him back because he is one the nicest guys I have ever met.”
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