It is just over a year since Billy Vunipola’s Test career came to a shuddering halt. Having arranged to meet Eddie Jones for a chat at a Hertfordshire pub, he thought it would be a routine catch-up. Instead the head coach informed him he was being cut from the England squad and delivered some uncomfortable home truths.
Only now, for the first time, does Vunipola feel ready to talk about it publicly. He might now be sitting pretty, just above Sydney’s Coogee beach, back in England’s starting XV and preparing for a series decider against Australia, but the past 12 months have taken him on an emotional voyage of personal discovery.
It started with the realisation that Jones was correct to criticise his form, fitness and attitude. “He said he wanted me to find my best version of myself,” recalls the Saracens No 8, reflecting on a “tough time” he now sees as a blessing. “At the time I disagreed with him but looking back now he was right.”
Carrying on as normal was not an option. Instead of just consulting his long-time club coaches Mark McCall and Phil Morrow, however, Vunipola chose to visit a psychologist. “I’ve never really believed in psychologists before but after talking to Eddie I felt I needed someone to tell me the honest truth. I think Smally and Phil are awesome. I just felt like sometimes they weren’t as harsh on me as they could have been. They know me too well and didn’t want to hurt my feelings.”
The process took a while – “We talked nearly every day for six or seven months” – but Vunipola now understands he cannot purely rely on natural talent and strength, “which I got away with for a lot of years”. “I was lying to myself by thinking I was just going to turn up and it was going to happen.”
Having become a father in November 2020, Vunipola had also become distracted by other off-field matters: fretting about life after rugby, looking to invest in cryptocurrency and generally “worrying about things that made little or no sense to my day job. The reason I started playing rugby was because I liked the game: running into people, tackling people, getting up and mentally toughing it out. That probably got lost.”
His psychologist instead encouraged the big man to focus on life’s bare necessities. “One of our first conversations was me complaining about being relegated with Saracens. He basically just said: ‘What can you do about it?’ I said: ‘Nothing.’ Then he said: ‘What can you do about your rugby?’ I was like: ‘Everything.’ He then said I’d climbed up the mountain and got to where I wanted while everyone else is still climbing. He basically said: ‘If you stop now, you will regret it for the rest of your life. If you carry on, who knows what could happen?’”
That thought was still prominent in the 29-year-old’s mind before kick-off in Brisbane, along with a blunt message from his father Fe’ao, a former Tonga international, regarding his son’s display in the first Test. “Perth was my first game playing international rugby for a while. I probably played within myself for whatever reason. I didn’t express myself as I wanted to. A lot of that was down to the fact I didn’t want to make a mistake.
“My father’s not out here but he sent me a really long message saying how disappointed he was with my performance. How he had been excited to see me play and just felt flat after the game because he hadn’t seen the person he thought was going to turn up. If you’re a 130kg No 8 you’ve got to do something. That’s my job and I didn’t do that in Perth. I wanted him to not send me another message like that.”
The upshot was a far more forceful second Test effort, underpinned by an improved fitness regime and a healthier diet. “At the moment I’m about 132 kilos. During the Championship year I’d be around 136kg. Looking back I looked heavy.” Weighing-in on a daily basis also helped him. “Sometimes I’d just look in the mirror and be like: ‘Oh yeah, I look good.’ Three months later I’ve put on six kilos.”
Now he looks re-energised, buoyed by a more upbeat phone call from Jones during Saracens’ post-season social in London last month. Alex Dombrandt was sidelined and Vunipola finally had his reprieve. “I was trying not to drink too much just in case he called me. When he did I was made up. Normally those Sunday sessions last until the early hours but I got home at about 10.30pm. I wanted to give myself every chance of doing well here.”
All that remains is to clinch a series victory on Saturday. “Looking back, I’m very glad the last year happened because the hunger came back. When I’m playing I’m like a basketballer. I like to talk rubbish but back it up with my actions. I felt I did that in the second Test but I reckon I’ll be better this week.” The days of big Billy taking his career for granted would seem to be over.