It is easily forgotten that Billy Vunipola has played just 167 minutes of international rugby in the last two years. Having scored on his return in Saracens’ victory over Sale Sharks this month, then again two weeks later against Glasgow, it feels like he hasn’t been away at all.
But he has, and for a painfully long time that saw one of the world’s form players plunged into a “dark place” amid a recurring injury nightmare. Shoulder and knee surgeries were followed by three broken arms: two to his right forearm and one to his left. The setbacks cost him a British and Irish Lions tour, the bulk of two Six Nations campaigns, as well as both 2017 and 2018’s autumn internationals, and left him standing out as one of the game’s unluckiest players.
The enforced absence has taught him a few lessons, too. His love of rugby, his love of the physicality, but also his love of life outside the sport. Having spent the best part of two years on the sidelines, the 26-year-old has experienced lows he never wants to feel again. “It is tough mentally to always go to that place that’s quite dark, but you’ve got to push yourself,” the England international tells The Independent.
After surgery on both arms, Vunipola is returning to his best and is now back in the England squad, with the No 8 currently in Portugal with the rest of the team preparing for the Six Nations. But it’s been a long journey to get to this point. Twice Vunipola has returned from breaking his arm and twice he has had to cope with it happening again. But after previously rushing himself into action or throwing himself in at the deep end without showing any caution for his body, he is doing it differently this time around.
“There’s always a bigger game,” he says. “Be patient, having an extra week off to give your body time to rest will probably save you another three months. You kind of weigh up those two options and I guess I was a bit short-sighted when I did have my first few injuries and was so keen to ride the wave of my form back then that I was ready to put myself at risk every time I came back.
“I feel like now I’m not fully prepared but more prepared than I was before, especially mentally – probably a bit too much in my first game but as I keep saying I want to be back to my old self.”
The time out of the game meant that Vunipola had plenty of hours to fill – something that is easier said than done when rehabilitating that leaves him in the unfamiliar position of giving it his all in the gym every single day.
“When you’re injured you’ve got a lot more time to recover. You’ve got a lot more time to just focus on one thing, so say for example Monday is weights and you can max out on that, max out on your fitness because even if you know you’re tired the next day, you kind of don’t have to be fresh for the weekend. The goal is to get stronger, the goal is to get more resilient and the only way that happens is by pushing yourself to the limit.
“Sometimes I go to a local gym and envy those that just go in and lift, do the guns, because I wish I could do those weights, because usually when you’re in a weights room you push yourself to the max, especially if you’re injured.”
But there are other things that Vunipola found to fill those lonely hours where rugby used to be. When Saracens played away from home, he would explore the country. When they were at home, he’d be at Allianz Park and spend his weekdays with his teammates or catching up on the much-needed sleep that comes with rehab. Speaking while taking part in a Battlefield V live stream with England teammates Anthony Watson and Courtney Lawes, Vunipola recalls the days that he once filled his time gaming, though that ended when his girlfriend intervened. “I did play a lot of FIFA but fell out with my partner so I had to stop, just too much screen time.”
And then there’s his family: number two on his priority list. Having his relatives around him has helped considerably through his injury torment, not least brother Mako and his suddenly expanded family with new-born son Jacob. Finding the balance between rugby, rehab and family has helped Vunipola take on a more enlightened view on his career; do not put all your eggs in one basket, but do not take that basket for granted. Having seemingly had the world at his feet as arguably the world’s most impactful No 8 in early 2017, Vunipola saw it all taken away in a moment that taught him about appreciating what he had one and off the pitch, eventually bringing new perspective to his life.
“You can’t take it for granted but also it can’t run your life,” he explains. “I play rugby, I like watching rugby but also I like hanging out with my family and friends. I think the best thing that can happen is kids and my brother’s just had a little baby boy and that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. You go see him and he just cares about nothing, he’s either hungry, needs changing or wants to go to sleep, and they’re the most amazing bits I guess to realise that there is so much more to life.
“I’ve still got both my legs, I’ve still got both my arms, they’ll heal. I can still play rugby, I just might be out for three months. Obviously I don’t want to be injured but I’ve got so many things to be grateful about.
“Once I stop being a kid I guess I’ll be ready for whatever comes after, but it’s one of those things you can’t control. You want it to happen or you want it to be a certain time in your life but the last stage is up to I think the big man upstairs so we’ll see.”
He has spoken previously of receiving social media criticism about his injuries, something that teammate Jamie George also experienced after his performance against New Zealand last autumn when England’s lineout wobbled. Yet, with his emphasis on striking a balance between life on and off the pitch, Vunipola’s words are the perfect message to those in the professional game who struggle to put criticism to one side.
“It’s a tough one for me because obviously there was a period where…well I’m not out of that period but I was always injured. The thing that people don’t understand is you’re never trying to be injured, I’ve never had the intention to be injured, and that’s probably what got to me more than anything. Like Jamie, he’s not trying to miss those lineouts.
“On the point of mental health, a lot of people especially in rugby – I’m not sure what the stat is but I think it’s about 60 per cent suffer from depression after they retire. You can’t hold your self-worth in rugby, I think for me the one thing where I went to a bad place mentally was when the only thing I wanted to be good at was rugby, and rugby will always be the third-most important thing in my life behind my faith and my family, and that’s how we have to as rugby players not think too much about yourself as just a rugby player.”
Which brings us to priority No 1. Through all the pain and darkness, Vunipola’s faith has been there to pull him through. “I think the best way for me to use praying like talking to a psychologist. I’m not actually doing it but that’s how I see it, me putting all my problems on, say, God is like you or any normal person going to see a psychologist and saying ‘look this is what I’m suffering from’. I have that avenue to say ‘please can you help me’ and I don’t know if he will help me or he won’t but that’s where I’m putting my faith and I guess that weight comes off my shoulders and I can go be the person I am.
“Sometimes when I’m happy or grateful or angry or it could be whenever, I think for me the best thing for me at the moment is I’m just so grateful to be back training with the team and know I’m actually playing rugby again. It got to the point where I was sick and tired of training and sick and tired of playing rugby, but then it took me a two-year period to realise what I had was a great thing, so I want to get back into the fold with not only England but everything that comes with modern life.”
Billy Vunipola was playing Battlefield V during a livestream event in London. To order your copy of Battlefield V visit: www.ea.com/games/battlefield/battlefield-5/buy
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