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The gainline-busting Cardiff Rugby loosehead has been one of the form players in the URC and he wants his opportunity with Wales

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The day Billy Vunipola was taken aside by Saracens over his off-field behaviour

By Ian Cameron
(Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Hulking Saracens No8 Billy Vunipola has recalled the day he was taken aside by Saracens over his off-field behaviour – by non-other than his brother Mako. Vunipola went off the rails at the age of 25 while at the north London club back in 2018, turning to alcohol as he battled back from a string of broken forearms. Despite Saracens’ on-field successes and his role in them, Vunipola found himself struggling with the drudgery of the day-to-day grind and a run of serious injuries.

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The troubled back row had taken to midweek drinking sessions, roping in younger lads at the club, and he sought to party his way through his difficulties and live the life that was denied to him as an aspiring professional athlete.

“I went from not drinking my whole life to having a serious, serious injury at 25 to thinking, ‘Right, I’m going to start drinking’. Just before I started drinking,  people probably don’t know this, I broke up with my now-wife. I don’t know, I was just going through a weird phase of wanting to be that 20-year-old that never got to be that 20-year-old.

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“It sounds silly but I never did that. Fresh out of school I was playing for Wasps, on the brink of getting relegated. Even at 17, I played my first game in the Prem, so I never got to just be a kid. It sounds ungrateful but I did it at 25 in the middle of my career. It’s no coincidence that all my injuries happened when I went on a bender essentially for 10 months before I went crawling back to my wife.

Vunipola’s loose behaviour outside of the team environment didn’t go unnoticed. “We ran a tight ship (at Saracens). I was rebelling for myself. Training felt monotonous at the time. Coming in everyday, training harder than everyone else, then just coming home. Training by myself, as everyone knows. Drinking was my vice at the time and I wasn’t just doing it at the weekends. I was doing it on weekdays. Essentially I was getting hold of all the younger boys and leading them astray.”

It would eventually come to a head when Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall recruited older brother and England prop Mako, who took him to one side following a training session at Old Albanians RFC. “To be fair it was a smart call because Mark went to my brother instead of him coming directly to me. I remember him [Mako] pulling me outside the changing room in OAs [Old Albanians RFC], right where you walk out to the first team pitch.

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“We were under the veranda upstairs and I remember thinking does he want to go out with me,” joked Billy. “He basically said, ‘Look mate, you’re leading everyone astray. You’re supposed to be one of the leaders in this team’. I felt I was still young as I was 25, so I didn’t have to set an example. He said the example I was setting was basically the opposite of what we wanted to have at this club.

“I remember being annoyed with him at first but realising the reason I’m annoyed is because he is right. He said I should say sorry to the group of lads, because I let them down and I said, ‘Who?’ He just started reeling off names. It was my peers, people I cared about. People I didn’t want to let down. For people that know me, I don’t like letting people down that I care for.

“I felt really nervous before having to stand up because I felt that judgement of people. Sometimes in a brotherhood you feel that judgement. The reason why I was happy to get up and apologise was because Mako came and told me directly instead of being one of those guys who stood there going: ‘Yeah you’re right. He’s been a disgrace’.

“When I stood up there I felt like it was on me to say sorry and change but I was happy to do it, not only because I let the boys down but because Mako is my elder and respecting him; because he’s in a position that he is older than me, he’s my brother and he’s relaying a message that is obviously coming from everyone else. You have got to believe people when they say what they see.”

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Then Saracens forward coach Alex Sanderson, who is now head coach at Sale Sharks – was a little uncomfortable with the Vunipola apology. “Al was a little uncomfortable at the time probably because he felt like they were picking on me or making me do this but no one made me do it. It was definitely something I wanted to do.”

 

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