Back-rower Billy Vunipola thriving on his return to the England set-up

Billy Vunipola says his single-minded pursuit of reviving his England career compelled him to turn down lucrative corporate entertaining work at Twickenham.

Vunipola was among a group of senior players culled by Eddie Jones a year ago amid doubts from the head coach over their appetite to complete another World Cup cycle and he missed an entire autumn campaign and Six Nations as a result.

In response, the mighty Saracens number eight took himself out of the limelight, declining the opportunity to earn close to six figures hosting supporters at England home games and observing a self-imposed media blackout.

Billy Vunipola has been the Premiership's most effective number eight since the start of last season
Billy Vunipola has been the Premiership’s most effective number eight since the start of last season (Yui Mok/PA)

He wanted his club form to do the talking and the move paid off when he was recalled for the successful July tour to Australia and against Argentina on Sunday he will continue his international rebirth when he starts in the back row.

“Sometimes it’s not about money, it’s more about how you want to feel, how you want to present yourself,” Vunipola said.

“I didn’t want to be one of those guys who was just happy to be dropped. That’s how I assume it to be – people just turning up at Twickenham, happy to take the cash. I wasn’t happy just to take the cash. I wanted to play.

“I watched every single England game. I didn’t want to be one of those who was bitter and not watch the games.

“But I admit, I didn’t want to be at Twickenham. There are marquees everywhere and they want to throw cash at you to do appearances.

“I didn’t want to do it because you say one thing wrong, someone sends it to the press and I’m in the same position I would have been in if I did media. So I was very careful about what I did.

“Being injured is different to being fit and not being picked. There’s a different feeling, it’s almost envy and you don’t want envy because you want the England team and the players to do well.

“But as a human being, as a competitor, you want to be involved in that arena. I want to be playing, not sitting with 100 drunk people asking me questions about Eddie.”

Vunipola is on course to appear at a third World Cup in France next year and the 30-year-old refuses to view it as his last, instead drawing inspiration from the late-career development of veteran Courtney Lawes.

Jones’ suggestion that he lacked the appetite to continue running into brick walls for England also had the desired impact as he struggled with Saracens’ relegation to the Championship for the 2020-21 season.

Eddie Jones dropped Billy Vunipola for the first time just over a year ago
Eddie Jones dropped Billy Vunipola for the first time just over a year ago (David Davies/PA)

“I kind of just laughed it off and thought ‘okay, he knows what he’s doing and it’s a challenge he has laid out for us, for me’. He was right,” Vunipola said.

“When he is questioning your hunger, motivation and determination, if you get annoyed by that then a lot of what he’s saying is true.

“My hunger didn’t wane as such, but I probably became a bit disillusioned with playing in the Championship.

“It was tough to play at that level then slot straight back in with England. Eddie has talked about it before – expecting us to come back in and just hit the ground running.

“In the Championship we were just expected to blow teams away which we did, after that first game against Cornish Pirates!

“Then we were just expected to slot back in to international rugby but the gap is just too big.”

Vunipola believes the improvement seen in his game since the start of last season is evident in subtle changes.

“It wouldn’t necessarily be stats, it would be my work off the ball. If you’re questioning hunger that’s probably the thing to look at.

“So my work off the floor, getting into position to give myself the opportunity to carry and tackle.

“Those aspects of the game sometimes get lost in the big carries, moments in mauls, things like that.”