Billy Vunipola is ‘pumped’ to return to work at a packed Twickenham — by walking the walk on the pitch, rather than talking the talk in front of a room full of corporate guests.
Saracens’ No 8 has waited a long time for another chance to play for England in front of a full house at the national stadium.
Having turned 30 on Thursday, he will line up against Argentina on Sunday with a profound appreciation for the sort of grand international occasion he last experienced in south west London way back in August 2019.
Billy Vunipola set to make his first England appearance at Twickenham since August 2019
Since that pre-World Cup encounter with Ireland, the younger Vunipola brother has missed the partisan fervour at Twickenham due to injuries, Covid disruption and his year-long exile from the England team.
During that prolonged absence, he was offered the chance to make match-day appearances at HQ, but the lucrative guest speaking roles did not sit comfortably with him.
‘I didn’t want to be one of those who was bitter and not watch the games,’ he said, as England continued their build-up to the autumn opener against the Pumas. ‘But I have to admit, I didn’t want to be at Twickenham.
‘There are marquees everywhere and they want to throw cash at you to do appearances — but that was one thing I didn’t want to do, because you say one thing wrong and someone sends it to the press. So I was very careful about what I did.
‘Being fit and not being picked is different from being injured. It’s a different feeling — it’s almost envy, and you don’t want envy because you want England and the players playing to do well.
‘But there’s a part of you as a human being, as a competitor, that wants to be involved in that arena. I wanted to be playing, not sitting with 100 drunk people asking me questions about Eddie Jones!’
England forward has waited a long time for another chance to play at a packed Twickenham
Asked if he had declined offers of corporate work, he added: ‘Yeah, but sometimes it’s not about money, it’s about how you want to feel and present yourself. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who was just happy to be dropped. That’s how I assume people are just turning up — happy to take the cash. I wasn’t happy just to take the cash. I wanted to play.’
That outlook reflected Vunipola’s fierce determination to prove to Jones that he still had plenty to offer, having been among those England stalwarts caught up in the fall-out from Saracens’ relegation to the Championship. Even when the club returned to the Premiership and Vunipola was back in the old, line-busting routine, he had to remain patient.
His chance came in July and he demonstrated his ascent to a new peak as England claimed a series victory in Australia.
Asked if he ever doubted that he would return to the top level of the sport, he said: ‘No. Not in an arrogant way, but my mindset was, “How do I get into this team? That’s what I’m going to do”. If I’d had a little bit of doubt then I wouldn’t be sitting here now.’
The 30-year-old has bounced back from injury, Covid disruption and a year-long exile
Reclaiming the No 8 shirt he had relinquished was not the culmination of the mission but a mere staging post. ‘That couldn’t be my end-goal, just getting back in the England team,’ said Vunipola.
‘My challenge this autumn is how well can I play and how long can I play in games.’
In fact, in his mind, the focus on longevity extends far beyond striving to last a full 80 minutes each week. Billy sees no reason to view next year’s World Cup as his last.
He has taken inspiration from another familiar fixture in the England pack over recent years. He said: ‘I look at Courtney Lawes — he’s 33, going on 34, and still a machine, doing really well.
Vunipola is determined to show head coach Eddie Jones that he still had plenty to offer
‘I don’t want to say this is my last World Cup. I’ll see how long I can go on for. You never know. To play for England is a massive honour. You don’t want to put a stop to your career by saying, “After next year, I’m done”.’
On Sunday, that massive honour for Vunipola will take place in front of a massive crowd. He admits that being an England regular for so long meant he took the Twickenham experience for granted, but he has grown to appreciate it more having had to fight so hard to sample it again.
‘I’m pretty pumped about this game,’ he said. ‘It’s almost like a new debut there for me. It has given me a lot of motivation — to get back into the England team and play at a full Twickenham.
‘Everyone is there to watch you, then you sing the anthem and there’s that bit between the anthem and playing where you get a spike of nervous energy mixed with excitement. That’s probably what I’ve missed the most.’