‘Eddie might cut 60% of players, I CAN’T be one of them’: England star Billy Vunipola on his Lions and World Cup dreams… and why Saracens need to be humble in the second tier.
Vunipola believes Eddie Jones can lead England to World Cup glory in 2023
He feels the coach will provoke trepidation and inspiration among the players
The No 8’s aims are to stay fit, represent his country and get into Lions squad
By CHRIS FOY FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Billy Vunipola is glad Eddie Jones will continue to provoke trepidation and inspiration among England players because he believes the Australian can lead them to World Cup glory in 2023.
The Saracens No8 is open and honest by nature, so his assessment of the England head coach comes with a self-deprecating insight into how he sees himself as a player.
Vunipola, 27, is in recovery mode during the coronavirus shutdown after an operation on an arm fracture.
He is delighted that Jones has extended his contract to the next World Cup because the Australian has had a profound impact on his career.
‘When Eddie came in, he did two things for me,’ said the younger Vunipola brother. ‘Firstly, he challenged me. I remember he said, “I reckon you can be the best No 8 in the world”, and I thought, “What’s this guy saying? He’s crazy to think that”.
‘But at the same time, I thought, “If he has that much belief in me, why can’t I have as much belief in myself?” — that’s what Eddie gave me. I remember after the Scotland game in 2016 (the first of Jones’s tenure). He was saying it before the game and I was more nervous about living up to his hype than I was about the game.
‘People say that was probably my best Six Nations. I would agree. That’s what Eddie did for me. He ignited that self-belief by telling me that the only thing that stops you is yourself.
‘He builds people’s thinking and pushes it, rather than limiting where you think you can go.
‘He challenges people in different ways and that might be by not picking you, but he will always tell you what you can do to get better. Eddie has shown a lot of trust in me, so it means the most important thing for me is not letting him down, myself down or my family down.’
Vunipola feels Jones will provoke trepidation and inspiration among the England players
Vunipola is aware that Jones generates strong views in people who queue up to either acclaim or denigrate him. But he presented a player’s perspective by harking back to last October, as England prepared for the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, which they went on to win emphatically.
‘I think everyone just sees Eddie through the lens of the media and what he says, but the players will always back him and follow him,’ he said.
‘If you watch the documentary about the World Cup, the most excited I have ever been was when we had the first meeting before the New Zealand game. People should watch that.
‘It was the first meeting of the week and Eddie just said, “Nobody thinks we can beat the All Blacks, but I do”. It was on the Sunday I think, the day after we had played Australia.
‘Everyone was pumped already! It was a shame what happened to us in the final but I truly believe we have the right leader in charge to take us to the top.’
When Jones’s contract extension was announced, he spoke about a 60 per cent turnover of players before the next World Cup. It was a message to his squad about the need to keep raising standards. It hit the target. I’ve now got another three-plus years to be within that 40 per cent,’ added Vunipola.
‘That’s another way of him challenging the boys not to let up. ‘Everyone needs to take heed of his messages and make sure you aren’t the guy who gets cut.’
His aims are to stay fit, represent his country and hope that serves as a launchpad for the Lions
Vunipola has missed enough Tests through injury to have an appreciation of how much his international career matters. When it was confirmed that Saracens would be relegated, he made certain that he would remain on England’s radar in the Championship before committing to spending next season in the second tier.
His objectives are to stay fit, represent his country and hope that serves as a launchpad for the Lions next year. He was forced out of the 2017 tour of New Zealand due to injury, so is determined to earn a place in Warren Gatland’s squad to face the world-champion Springboks next summer.
Mako, his older brother, has been on the last two tours, so the younger sibling has a first one firmly in his sights.
‘That was on of the biggest things for me,’ he said. ‘I wanted to give myself the platform to help me play for the Lions. I need to play for England first, to put myself in the shop window to play for the Lions.
‘I have to show I am good enough. It is going to be massive and there is so much competition. It is definitely something I am very keen on doing.’
Vunipola is trying to stay in shape by running three times a week and going for regular walks with wife Simmone — a dietician who is controlling what he eats and the size of his portions.
The giant Anglo -Tongan forward has a formidable appetite and admitted that not having the option of eating out is helping his health drive.
Vunipola is unlikely to feature too often for Saracens in the Championship next season and he will appreciate the rest, but he believes the best way to repair the damage caused by repeated salary-cap breaches is for the players to show humility and dedication next season.
‘Something we can do to repair the image of the club is be humble enough to put on our best performances each week,’ he said.
‘There’s a massive disparity between the level we’re used to and the Championship.
‘The biggest challenge for us is to make sure we never treat it as if it’s beneath us.
‘Everyone has been happy to celebrate all the good times and trophies we’ve won, so I don’t see why it’s different now that we’re going down. The way we can repair our image is by showing that the club matters to us, no matter where we are playing. If we don’t do that, people will think we are arrogant.’
There is no trace of arrogance in Vunipola. He is instinctively humble. He talks about helping out by ‘talking rubbish’ as an ambassador for a company being run by a Saracens supporter.
During the lockdown, he is trying to improve his gaming skills but is a ‘bit of a wuss’ about it because he is so far below the standards of some England teammates and he doesn’t like losing. He has abandoned social media apart from business networking site LinkedIn.
‘I’m being a bit more grown-up,’ he joked. Vunipola accepts that pay cuts are a way of protecting the game’s finances and hopes that rugby can use this hiatus to restructure. But he is wary about talk of a world club tournament, suggesting that it may dilute the value of the World Cup.
Billy Vunipola has used Levitex pillows and mattresses to aid his recovery from injury, as part of the Sleep for Sport programme. For more details visit www.levitex.co.uk