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Vunipola queries top 4 rankings; agrees England are 'public enemy No1'

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

Billy Vunipola has hit back at the suggestion that there is a top four in international rugby and that England are grouped amongst the also-rans even though they have won their way through to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.


Much of the talk currently surrounding France 2023 has been about how the world’s four highest-ranked teams – the No1-ranked Ireland, the No2 France, the No3 South Africa, and the No4 New Zealand – were drawn on one side of the draw.

That situation will this weekend see Ireland take on the All Blacks and tournament hosts France attempt to dethrone the Springboks in Paris, quarter-final matches that will dominate the global interest. However, Pool D winners England are in action on Sunday against Fiji in Marseille the day after Pool C winners Wales take on Argentina.

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While Vunipola accepted that the English won’t be popular going into that match against the Fijians, who have reached the last-eight for the first time since 2007, he questioned the existence of the world rankings, hinting that the widely criticised England are instead timing their run perfectly at the finals.

“I wouldn’t say Fiji is the second favourite team, I’d say England is their first least favorite team,” he quipped when asked about England’s lack of popularity outside their own country. “In terms of being public enemy No1, we’re happy to take that mantle.

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“You see a lot of teams getting talked up. Apparently, there is a top four now in international rugby. I didn’t know there was a table but we are quietly and confidently going about our work. Our plan is to play well against Fiji and then deal with whatever happens after that, but Fiji is our main threat.”

Suspended for the opening match of the tournament against Argentina following a Summer Nations Series red card against Ireland in Dublin, Vunipola has since lost out of Saracens clubmate Ben Earl in the pecking order as he was only named as a sub in the wins over Japan and Samoa (he started versus minnows Chile).


A bench role is set to be his situation again this weekend against the Fijians, but Vunipola insisted he can live with being amongst the replacements if it means England continue their World Cup progress. “Being honest, I’d like to have played some more games but in saying that, the team I am playing for is in the quarter-finals.

“So, I’m happy to be involved, happy to add in any way I can both in and off the pitch and if that means we get through to the next round then so be it. But in terms of my contribution, I’m just trying to give as much as I can anywhere that I can.

“I’d be lying if I said (not starting) it was easy but what makes it better is that I know the team is doing well and that is the most important thing, the team progressing and we are in the quarter-finals.

“That is the most important thing. I could easily fly home having played 80 minutes every week (but) I’d rather be in a team that is winning and is in a quarter-final and I’m happy to be a part of it.”


Vunipola added the intensity in the England camp cranked up on Tuesday when they trained for the first time in Aix-en-Provence, their base ahead of Sunday’s clash with Fiji at nearby Marseille. “It’s plain and simple that if you don’t win this weekend you go home,” he said. “There is definitely an edge to training.

“You already saw it today and the way the boys are carrying themselves in the meeting we had in terms of reviewing (last Saturday’s Samoa game) and taking that forward. The boys are carrying that on their shoulders and making sure there is a lot of improvement going into this weekend.

“You can see that already. There is massive emphasis on the importance of this weekend because if you we lose we are going home.”

The start to England’s quarter-final training coincided with the arrival of Sam Underhill for his first pitch session since getting called up to the squad on Sunday in place of the injured Jack Willis. Vunipola reckoned: “He [Underhill] is a great player. We are just looking for him to add a different dimension to both training and if he if gets a chance in the game. It was a big loss to lose Jack.

“He [Underhill] trained today, trained really well, and he trained well in the summer. I remember Steve (Borthwick) referencing his name a lot in terms of his how he trained so he is in great shape. It is good to have him here. He takes a lot of flak as well so it’s good to have him here.”


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