Mako's back and Billy's all smiles before the big one

A bit of gallows humour seems to come with the territory for England No.8s at World Cups, writes Charlie Talbot-Smith.

First there was Lawrence Dallaglio labelling the 2007 tournament the ‘Life of Brian’ and then four years later it was Nick Easter referencing ‘35k down the toilet’.

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It always seems to be the big men with the last word after a knockout defeat.

Clearly Billy Vunipola has been listening, and doesn’t want to break with tradition.

But, unlike his predecessors, the key difference here in Oita is that Vunipola is cracking jokes while England are still very much alive.

And on the eve of Saturday’s do or die quarter-final against Australia, the Saracens man is desperate to keep it that way.

"I said something the other day as a joke and I think I shocked a few of the boys,” admits the 26-year-old.

“Wednesday is our biggest training day, and I said it as a remark just to check the boys: 'Lads, this could be our last session'.

“I had a few stares from the lads and they just all laughed it off, but I was, like: ‘I am being serious, if we don’t turn up, we are going home.’

"It is always nice to remind yourself, you don't want to live in fairyland, because you get to Sunday and it's done, and that's when the excuses come out.

“But if you just take it head on, we have talked about it already, made sure we know what the consequences are. We also know if we can keep playing the way we have been playing but just that little bit better, we will be in a good place."

It is all about staying in the moment, and Vunipola appreciates that probably more than anyone in this England squad.

While this might be the No.8’s 13th start in a row for his country in 2019 – a record unmatched by anyone in world rugby this year – this consistency is a far cry from his last two seasons.

In 2017 and 2018, the Australian-born but Tongan-bred behemoth could barely string two games together due to injury.

That fitness issue appeared to have reared its head again in Japan when he twisted his ankle against Argentina and by half-time could not even walk round the changing room.

But Typhoon Hagibis rolled into town soon after, Le Crunch was dumped, and Vunipola has recovered in time for the Wallabies.

The fitness is back, but is the form? Vunipola himself is the first to admit he has not been firing on all cylinders this tournament.

Stunned by Zane Kapeli’s tackle of the tournament contender in Sapporo, Vunipola has spent too long ever since avoiding contact, pirouetting when he should be pulverising, and out wide instead of right in the thick of it.

He added: “I’ve not been given as much time and space as I was used to. In the warm-up games teams are watching and I became a big target against Tonga. It was about trying to change where I turn up, whether it was off 9, 10 or 13.

“I did that against Argentina which I won't be doing again...I'm not a big fan of the wide channels.

"It's about doing whatever I can to help the team, whether that's more depth off 9 or 10 or just trucking it instead of trying to use footwork.

“I went from using no footwork to using a lot of footwork and now I think I need to go back. Hopefully that'll create space for me to use footwork later on.

“At the moment I'm not doing any tough carries. That's what we talked about, doing the hard yards which I probably haven't been doing.

“It was probably better coming from me because Mitch (defence coach John Mitchell) was hinting at it anyway! We got to the bottom of it!”

If anything is going to shake Vunipola out of his slump this weekend, then undoubtedly it is the return of big brother Mako to the starting XV.

While their relationship off the pitch remains imbalanced, according to Billy anyway, on the pitch they dovetail to perfection.

He added: “It definitely is a thing (that we play better together). Subconsciously, it’s not something we think about but like I was saying earlier it’s about giving myself a little more time.

“Having my brother there gives me that time. He obviously takes away tension because he is as much of a threat. We’ve got the Sincklers and the Jamie Georges but he goes really well in that capacity off nine and that helps to give me space and timings in the next carry.

“He takes a lot of pressure off me because he’s the older brother, so anything that comes towards the Vunipolas he usually takes the brunt of it and I’m always in the back just kicking back as younger brothers do. I enjoy having him around, he’s like a bit of my shield. That’s what big brothers do. I thoroughly enjoy playing with him and I’m happy to see him back in the team.”

Like any pair of brothers, the bond between them runs deep. So deep in fact that sometimes Billy struggles to find it!

“We have a funny relationship. I think I explained before that deep down I think we really love each other but he’d never say it to me,” added the back-rower.

“I always say it to him but he gets embarrassed and runs away.

“There is definitely that love and respect. We just do our own jobs. We don’t have to hang around and tell each other every day or every other minute how much we care for each other, it’s just there.

“He’s family and I can’t change that. That is probably what differentiates me and him to everyone else, is that he’s my brother.

"We still don’t hang out, unless his little boy is here, he is what brings us together, is my nephew.”

England are willing to crack jokes and make merry as one big happy family at the moment. But on Saturday night, the ties that bind will be put to the test.

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