The two-time European champions of Munster, not so much bullied as bulldozed to within an inch of their rugby lives by Billy Vunipola’s vibrant brand of muscular virtuosity in an extraordinary encounter on the outskirts of London last month, might have been surprised to learn that the Saracens No 8 was just emerging from a pit of sporting depression.
His gloom had nothing to do with long-term injury or a lengthy suspension – the common or garden occupational hazards of all those who play this hard old game at a high level – and lots to do with something far more personal.
“I’d gone away from my faith,” the 22-year-old forward said yesterday, as he reflected on the self-inflicted wounds that led to his ejection from the England squad during the autumn internationals. “The biggest thing for me is my belief, and I went against it by getting ahead of myself – by taking advantage of what I had rather than truly appreciating it. I wasn’t humble enough to recognise that, even though I was in the team, I still had to work.
“Then, after I’d been sent home from the England camp and I was sat there grumbling about not being involved in the Test against Samoa, I read the line about ‘the arrogant being humbled and the humble being lifted up’ and I understood where I was going wrong. Sometimes, you have to hear things about yourself that you don’t want to hear – to listen to stuff that dents your ego.”
Vunipola illustrated this tale by referring to Manny Pacquiao, the world champion boxer from the Philippines. “He had a strong faith, but his career stagnated when he strayed from it and started gambling,” said the back-rower. It is an open question as to whether Wales, who face England in an eagerly awaited Six Nations opener in Cardiff on Friday night, would rather see Pacquiao emerging from the Millennium Stadium tunnel in a white shirt. The Pac Man may have won titles at umpteen different weights, but he has never tipped the scales at 20st-plus.
Much to the delight of the red-rose coach, Stuart Lancaster, who lost the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan to long-term injury on the very night he was shading his individual contest with Vunipola in a Premiership game at Kingsholm, the younger man has been honest with himself about his rugby shortcomings, as well as his perceived spiritual ones. Vunipola’s destructive capabilities with ball in hand have never been in doubt, but his fitness has. As one All Black put it after New Zealand’s victory at Twickenham before Christmas: “When did you last see us substitute Kieran Read after an hour? We like to keep our best blokes on the field.”
If Vunipola is no Kieran Read – with the possible exception of the Italy captain, Sergio Parisse, who is? – he has the power game to trouble the most secure defences in international union. And that includes the Welsh version, designed and constructed with great attention to detail by Shaun Edwards. Happily for England, the youngster has made it his mission to dismantle the red barricades early and keep dismantling them for the duration.
“If I ever want to be regarded as a world-class player or anything near that, I have to show I can play the full 80,” he said. “I want the coaches to give me the opportunity to do that. I want to prove I can contribute through the whole game.”
Under the circumstances, then, this has been a good time for Lancaster to restore the 36-year-old Nick Easter to the Test squad. In camp for the first time since the 2011 World Cup, the Harlequins No 8 is a master of many arts – the telling offload, the slide-rule running line, the pick-up at the base of a retreating scrum – but most of all, he knows the short cuts. Without a deep understanding of energy conservation, his age would have done for him long ago.
“Nick? He’s much cleverer than me,” Vunipola admitted. “He’s so smart in the way he picks his opportunities.” Had Easter offered any tips on the subject of longevity? “Yes. He told me not to overtrain.”Reuse content