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The Borthwick reaction to very public apology from Billy Vunipola

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

England boss Steve Borthwick has reacted to the public apology issued earlier this week to him in the media by Billy Vunipola. The pair had a historical falling-out in Italy during the lead-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup when the Saracens back-rower made some out-of-line comments to the then-Test team assistant coach.

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Four years later, following a maiden Guinness Six Nations campaign with Borthwick at the helm as Eddie Jones’ successor, Vunipola, who was overlooked for selection, sought out the head coach to apologise for what had occurred in Treviso.

Five months later, Vunipola has now been named as the starting England No8 for this Saturday’s Summer Nations Series match versus Wales in London and at his team announcement media briefing on Thursday, Borthwick was asked for his thoughts on the player going public earlier this week with the apology he privately delivered in March.

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“I think it shows the character that he has been so open and honest publicly,” reckoned Borthwick. “That shows the character of the man. I think as a situation by the fact that it has played out is bigger than what it actually is in reality, but I think he is an important figure in this squad. The players have incredible respect for him and they look up to him, so having him here in the squad is really important for us.”

Vunipola, in a Rugby World Cup squad announcement interview that was published on Tuesday by The Telegraph, had explained: “I was very, very ahead of myself back then because we had just won the double with Saracens, I had played really well in the semi-final and final and knew I was going to be in the (2019 RWC) England squad.

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“I had a conversation with Steve about rugby after training when we were in Treviso. I said a few things that were out of line, basically. I said some things that never should have been said to Steve in that way, but also in front of other people.

“We had already had conversations about my rugby in January (this year) and it is important to say that I don’t believe it had anything to do with me not playing in the Six Nations.

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“But I felt it was important for myself to address the issue and actually apologise to Steve, having matured a little bit. I just wanted to let him know that I was sorry, because I am sorry, you know.

“He should never have been in that situation where I’ve made him feel like I was patronising towards him. Especially as an elder, not just the coach but someone who is older than me. It was very disrespectful what I did to Steve.”

With England having made 11 changes to their XV following last weekend’s 9-20 loss to Wales in Cardiff, Vunipola will take the field at Twickenham this Saturday in a back row with Courtney Lawes, who has only played a dozen Test minutes this season, while Ben Earl will make his first Test start after 15 appearances as a sub. Borthwick is looking forward to what the combination can potentially produce.

“There are a lot of combinations across the team to get excited about,” he said. “We talked about midfield; back row is another one of those. It’s brilliant to see Courtney in an England shirt; he played a very small part in the Six Nations, so it is terrific to have him back in the team. He is looking in great shape, looking really sharp.

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“Ben Earl, I’m delighted for him to have his first start in an England shirt. He brings enormous energy onto the pitch. We all know the speed he brings in that back row but what I particularly enjoy about his game is the way he links with the backs. There are not too many back row forwards around that I see link with the backs as well he does.

“And then Billy Vunipola is starting at eight. We talked quite a bit about him on Monday. He has worked exceptionally hard to be in the position that he is in and that is immense credit to him.”

Team Form

Last 5 Games

3
Wins
0
1
Streak
5
13
Tries Scored
13
-5
Points Difference
-51
2/5
First Try
2/5
2/5
First Points
2/5
1/5
Race To 10 Points
2/5

Reflecting on what was said earlier this year when Vunipola was excluded from England’s plans for the Six Nations, the coach added: “There were several areas we wanted to discuss and improve in his game. Billy has spoken to you about that as well.

“As with every player I want them to develop and improve. That is what we want in this environment because if we keep searching for those improvement areas this team will take big strides in the direction we want to be in at the start of the tournament.”

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