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'It's personal': England rift alleged between Vunipola and Borthwick

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

An ex-England international has alleged that a bust-up is the reason why Billy Vunipola hasn’t figured at all this year for his country under new head coach Steve Borthwick. Previous head coach Eddie Jones had recalled the Saracens No8 for last July’s three-Test series win away to Australia and Vunipola remained the player in that England jersey for three of England’s four Autumn Nations Series matches in November, starting versus Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa and coming off the bench against Japan


Vunipla was absent, though, when Borthwick named his 36-strong squad on January 16 for the 2023 championship and the coach has since named the generally misfiring Alex Dombrandt as his No8 in all four England matches – including last Saturday’s humiliating record home defeat versus France.

Given that the England back row of Lewis Ludlam, Jack Willis, Dombrandt and replacement Ben Curry were so brutally blown away by the French, former England out-half Andy Goode had hoped that Borthwick would recall Vunipola for the final match of the campaign away to Ireland next Saturday in Dublin.

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However, Borthwick continued to exclude Vunipola when the squad was publicly confirmed on Monday morning and Goode, appearing on the latest edition of The Rugby Pod he hosts with Jim Hamilton, has now alleged that a bust-up with coach Borthwick is the reason for Vunipola’s continued absence.

Borthwick would have previously worked with Vunipola when he was the England assistant coach under Jones, taking charge of the forwards from 2016 through to the pandemic suspension of the 2020 Six Nations. Throughout that period, Vunipola was a regular Test pick when he was fit, but he has now been cast aside since Borthwick took charge after joining from Leicester in December.

Asked on the show about the England back row situation, Goode said: “This is the thing, pre-match doing the analysis, seven of that eight pack that monstered by France started every Six Nations game. Dombrandt, non-existent in the game, has been poor in the Six Nations. I look at the squad thinking, ‘You want some ballast, bring Billy back’. Billy ain’t there and I’m hearing the reasons around Billy not being involved in the Steve Borthwick squad is because they had a fallout. Had a fallout and Steve won’t pick him for that reason.


“From what I hear and understand it’s personal. Steve won’t pick Billy Vunipola because of what happened previously between them.”

Co-host Hamilton interjected that it was crazy how only last month the talk was about the England back row having so many options available and now this particular part of the team now appears to be stuck in a selection rut. Goode replied: “Well, there is one in the squad who probably makes more metres, breaks more tackles, metres after tackles, everything that you need – Ben Earl.

“He is not a massive bloke but in terms of performance of what he has done in the Premiership this year: I don’t have the stats to hand, but I’d be amazed if he is not in the most metres made bracket, most tackle busts, most metres made after contact as a player in the Premiership – and he can’t get a look in under Steve. I know he played Italy and put a kick in because that is probably what they told him to do but I can’t see England winning.”

Quizzed about what decision Borthwick will make at No10 given the current speculation is that George Ford could be a starter in Dublin, Goode, who is also a RugbyPass columnist, said: “What has George Ford done to deserve playing for England in the here and now? Off the back of an achilles injury, he has played two-and-a-half games (for Sale), has not set the world alight, and got spanked by London Irish at the weekend.


“I am bringing Manu (Tuilagi) back in the centres, so you have got to back Marcus Smith again (at 10) which probably means you have got a choice to make between Owen (Farrell) at 12, which I don’t agree with… I can’t see England winning. I can see a better performance from England, but this Ireland team is at times unplayable.”


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