A specially-designed rehab programme has helped Billy Vunipola return to England’s starting line-up not only ahead of schedule but fitter, faster and stronger than he was before the knee surgery that kept him out for three months.
It seemed to be beyond the wildest expectations that the Saracens No 8 would be back for the closing stages of the Six Nations Championship but under the guidance of club performance director Phil Morrow and physio Laura Tullock, the player reclaims his starting place against Ireland “10 per cent” better in key aspects of his conditioning.
“If you keep Billy happy, he will work for you and he did five double sessions a week so that by the nine-week mark he was doing squats in the gym 10 per cent more than he had ever lifted before,” said Morrow. “His times over 20-metre sprints have also improved. He eats right 80 per cent of the time and he trains unbelievably hard. He just wants to feel he is being listened to and feeling part of things. This [enforced] break has been like a pre-season for him.”
By the time Vunipola came into the England camp three weeks ago he was well on the way to getting back out on to the field of play. He came through a 72-minute stint for Saracens against Newcastle Falcons on March 5 and went straight into the squad for the Calcutta Cup, coming off the bench in the 52nd minute for Nathan Hughes.
Eddie Jones, the England head coach, was eager to compliment Hughes for the role he has played for England but acknowledges that Vunipola “is a special sort of player”.
“We have been very happy with Nathan but Billy has to get back on the horse and the horse has to be strong enough to carry him,” said Jones. “Billy has got a wonderful character. He is one of those guys who doesn’t say a lot but when he does, it means a lot to the team. He not only has a physical presence but he brings those laid-back but thoughtful observations to the team. He has a wonderful eye for observation and is able to see things clearly. He will add a lot to the team.”