Billy Vunipola: I've realised I can't win games on my own

Billy Vunipola credits dropping takeaways for improved form - Getty Images/David Rogers
Billy Vunipola credits dropping takeaways for improved form - Getty Images/David Rogers

Billy Vunipola is hungrier than ever - after ditching Deliveroo takeaways in an attempt to reignite his England career.

Vunipola is looking “as good as I’ve seen him”, Mark McCall, his director of rugby at Saracens, claimed after Saturday’s win over Harlequins. And Vunipola, who was dropped by Steve Borthwick for the recent Six Nations, has told how he has embarked on a health kick in an attempt to regain his place in the England pack.

“Training more, eating less,” the forward replied when asked what the secret was to getting in shape. “A simple formula, but hard to do sometimes, especially in St Albans where there’s Deliveroo all over the shop - that’s not a plug, by the way.”

It has been an odd couple of years for Vunipola. Having been left out by Eddie Jones for the Six Nations in 2022, he roared back into the squad off the back of a superb performance in Saracens’ Gallagher Premiership final defeat by Leicester Tigers, before being part of the summer series win in Australia.

But then the axe fell after England’s autumn of toil and Vunipola was dropped by Borthwick - but now he is looking back to his best after a performance against Harlequins that McCall hailed as “superb”.

Vunipola credited “putting in the hard work away from prying eyes” for his resurgence, with the acceptance of what he needed to do to win back his place as “the most freeing thing for me”. His response to this latest snub has been markedly different. He described his approach to getting back into the England side this time last year as “selfish”, putting too much emphasis on who was in the team instead of him.

McCall was not wrong either, with Vunipola eclipsing Alex Dombrandt, his rival for the England No 8 shirt, in a man-of-the-match display in the 36-24 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday. And with Saracens’ many other internationals gone in recent weeks, he was one of the senior voices left around to keep the train on the tracks.

“I got it wrong last year. My game is trying to help my team,” Vunipola said. “There are 15 players on the pitch and it’s not tennis, I can’t go out there and solely affect the game by myself. I’ve got to do my work within the team structures and I can’t go out there searching for someone, especially an opposite number, that might not be in front of me, could be somewhere else, and therefore go out of the system. So it’s nothing on [Dombrandt], it’s just me trying to be consistent.

“There was an extra level of responsibility that I had to carry when the boys were away; something that I'm not always comfortable with, but something that I've become a lot more comfortable with.”

Billy Vunipola credits dropping takeaways for improved form - Getty Images/Rob Newell
Billy Vunipola credits dropping takeaways for improved form - Getty Images/Rob Newell

As was the case during his previous exile, Vunipola turned down opportunities to speak at Twickenham as a pundit on match days, watching instead from home. “My wife knows to leave the house when I’m watching. We have a good partnership there,” he said with a smile.

“To me [being at Twickenham but not playing] feels like I'm almost accepting my fate and saying I’m fine with this. So I'd rather stay away from it. That's helped me to be driven in wanting to get back into the team.”

At his best, which he was not in November with England, Vunipola will always rumble effectively - naturally he was Saracens' top carrier on Saturday with 14, returning kicks and hungry for work. But this was a complete performance. His player-of-the-match award was no surprise, in a bonus-point win where, aside from fast starts by Harlequins in both halves and an impressive brace of tries from Cadan Murley, Saracens appeared too good.

The only negative for Saracens was the ankle injury to Owen Farrell, who was waiting to hear if it would rule him out of the Champions Cup tie against Ospreys next Sunday.

Losing the Premiership final last season also might have been a blessing, Vunipola believes, given Saracens were “very scratchy” and may have thought they were the “dog's b------s” had they triumphed. The intent to attack this season is no accident but was also not previously possible until now.

"We wanted to play a certain game that we [previously] weren't fit enough to play. So here we are, we've given ourselves a chance [to win the title]. But that's all we've done."

True. But the way table-topping Saracens and Vunipola are playing, it is some chance.