Billy Vunipola has revealed how no-holds-barred counselling sessions helped the England squad exorcise the demons of their 2015 Rugby World Cup failure, though the talismanic forward admitted he is still fuelled by the desire to never feel that pain of failure again.
In what was an honest and open 15 minutes, Vunipola explained how the work Eddie Jones and his backroom staff have carried out has not only helped to expose the core problems of the infamous pool-stage exit four years ago, but develop a relationship within the team that has not been discovered before.
Nothing was off limits in the group therapy sessions, which were organised by Jonas and run by psychologist Corinne Reid during England’s pre-World Cup training camps, with players encouraged to bond to the point that there is no longer any issue airing their dirty laundry to each other.
Vunipola did stress that the finer details of what was said remains private to the squad and squad only, but he did say: “Eddie has definitely got the baggage out. It was something that was very important to us and it has probably freed us up a lot in terms of our relationships.
“Everything that we felt or thought, we just put it out to the group. There were a few bumps in the road but like anything in the world - with your family and things like that - there are always mishaps. It helps to listen to each other and caring about another person's opinion and taking it on board, rather than going back to your room and having a little moan to your mate.
“I think this is the first team that is willing to go deeper than saying 'I think you should have hit this ruck.' We have got down to it - and it has been good.”
Vunipola is one of 16 players in the current squad who experienced the pain of 2015, where back-to-back defeats against Wales and Australia sent them crashing out of their home World Cup earlier than ever before.
At the time, Vunipola was struggling to hold down a place under Stuart Lancaster, yet under Jones he has developed into arguably the most impactful No 8 currently playing the game. The Saracens back-row believes that the improvement stems from two internal feelings that have scarred him – not like the one on his left forearm that remains from his injury nightmare in 2017/18 – that lie deep within his hulking 20-stone frame.
“That is still vivid in my mind, not something I enjoyed and not something I want to do again,” he added, having been asked if this Saturday’s match against Argentina feels like a switch being flicked ahead of England’s most important pool games.
“With our destiny in our own hands still, we have to put down a marker, not for anyone else but for ourselves as a team. We have talked a lot about it but talking is different to doing.
"What drives me a lot is doubt - from people doubting my personal abilities but also doubting the team. That's because I'm in a team environment and what people say about us can either affect you and make you crumble, or helps you to prove everyone wrong. So it's something that I like to use.
“And 2015 was massive because we went in with massive expectations on our backs and we didn’t deliver. We've been a bit quieter coming into this tournament and hopefully for us as a group that's a positive thing.
"We know what the feeling of 2015 is like and we don’t want to feel like that again. We've been hurt before and we don’t want to be like that again. That's driving us on as much as anything else. When 2015 happened everything turned on its head. But as a group, we’ve talked about things that we’ve never been able to put out there and it's brought us closer together.
“There's a lot more respect in that changing room for each other and it's been really fun."
Since missing the best part of 18 months with injury – Vunipola suffered three broken arms and knee ligament damage in quick succession – he has developed a more articulate and honest way of projecting his feelings. Of course, as we’ve seen this year during the Israel Folau saga, his words can and have landed him in trouble.
Yet this is down to the way that the England squad have learned how to project their feelings, their frustrations and their anger, into ways that make this a better squad: both as a rugby one and as a group of men who don’t always know how to do such a thing in an environment that can frown upon doing so.
“You know Eddie will always look for things to improve us and that was probably the biggest thing we needed to improve - how together we can be,” said Vunipola. “Every other team says they are doing it, but being brutally honest can hurt a few feelings.
“Being within the confines of England rugby, a lot of us are very precious. When you’re at your club, you’re the main man, but when you’re with England you’re just the next person.
“There were a few handbags thrown around but it was really good. She (Corinne Reid) gave us the platform to do it.
“It’s really hard but it is a thing - men don’t know how to talk about their feelings. It took us a while but we got there in the end.”
The 26-year-old has been selected to start the last 11 England Tests in 2019 by Jones and looks set to make it a straight dozen this weekend against the Pumas, where he could be joined in the squad by older brother Mako, who has not started a match since Saracens’ Champions Cup final victory in May.
Asked about Mako’s frame of mind ahead of his possible return, Billy Vunipola reveals that while the protective barriers may have been knocked down within the squad, there remains obstacles in the way between the Vunipola brothers.
“It’s exactly how I just said; we probably communicate via our partners, so you’ll have to ask my wife how he is, because he doesn’t tell me!” laughs Vunipola.
“His mood is always the same. Whether he’s happy or sad, his face is always the same.
“He knows he has to fight hard to get back in the team and it was the same for me when I was trying to get back in the team. Mark Wilson did a great job. Everyone has to do the same thing – Nowellsy [Jack Nowell] is in the same boat.
“We’re all just fighting and competing, but looking after each other at the same time.”
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