England ready to embrace being ‘public enemy number one’ to boost Rugby World Cup hopes

Steve Borthwick’s side take on the popular Pacific Islanders in the last eight of the tournament and Billy Vunipola has no problem with his side being disliked

Harry Latham-Coyle
In Aix-en-Provence
Tuesday 10 October 2023 16:39 BST
Billy Vunipola at an England training session in Carcassonne
Billy Vunipola at an England training session in Carcassonne (Getty Images)

England number eight Billy Vunipola stressed that his side are happy to be “public enemy number one” when they take on crowd favourites Fiji on Sunday.

The Pacific Islanders are back in the last eight of the Rugby World Cup for the first time in 16 years, pipping Australia to progress from Pool C despite a defeat to Portugal in Toulouse.

That set up another meeting with a nation that Simon Raiwalui’s side beat for the first time in history two weeks before this tournament began.

While a strong travelling contingent of England fans is expected in Marseille this weekend, Fiji are likely to be the neutral’s choice as they attempt to reach a first World Cup semi-final.

But Vunipola insists that the “bad guys” tag sits comfortably with England as they eye a last-four place.

“I would not say Fiji is their second favourite [team], I would say England is their first least favourite team,” Vunipola said when asked about Fiji’s popularity among the rugby public. “In terms of being public enemy number one, we are happy to take that mantle.

“We are seeing a lot of teams being talked up. There’s a top four, apparently. Apparently, there’s a top four in international rugby. I didn’t know that there was a table.

“We are quietly going about our work and confidently going about our work. Our plan is to play well firstly against Fiji and deal with whatever happens after that after Fiji. “

Vunipola is in contention for a promotion to the starting side after an impressive performance from the bench against Samoa.

England salvaged a one-point win in Lille to conclude their pool efforts unbeaten having already been secure in top spot.

It was at this point four years ago that England produced two of their best performances under Eddie Jones, surging away from Australia in the second half of a quarter-final meeting before shutting down the All Blacks to reach the final.

Vunipola believes that the squad will be able to draw on those positive memories as they target another deep tournament run.

England scraped past Samoa in their final Pool D game
England scraped past Samoa in their final Pool D game (Getty Images)

“There’s definitely been an edge to training, we saw that today, the way the boys carried themselves in the meeting we just had in reviewing what we saw,” Vunipola explained.

“So, it’s about taking that forward, the boys can carry it on their shoulders and make sure they are ready for this game.

“There’s massive emphasis on the importance of this weekend. When you get all your jobs right and you are in great unison, it feels easy. Even when things go wrong, you can feel that momentum behind you.

“[In] the quarter-final against Australia where we came back, I remember thinking to myself we’ll be alright when [Marika] Koroibete scored [to make it a one-point game just after half time]. We ended up winning by a hefty margin.

“[For] the New Zealand one, I don’t know what it was, you just felt the energy. It started way before the haka. It started on the Sunday after the quarter-final. We knew after that meeting we were in for a big one.”

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