The rise and rise of Billy Vunipola
May 22, 2014
Billy Vunipola on Six Nations duty © Getty Images
When Billy Vunipola took to the stage to collect the Land Rover Discovery of the Year award, he looked bashful, almost shy. His quiet, considered answers to questions regarding his monumental year were a mismatch to his physical, confident stride when he collects the ball and eyes up those in front of him.
Three days later he was picking up another award, he was named Man of the Match for Saracens in their Aviva Premiership semi-final win over Harlequins. Again, he picked up the award, looked full of concentration but whispered his answers.
It is that mixture of a solid grounding and raw potential that has seen him move from being bracketed as a promising player into an international No.8.
This time last year, Vunipola was bidding farewell to Wasps and preparing to join his brother at Saracens. While his old club are in the midst of their Champions Cup play-off with Stade Francais, Vunipola is preparing to face Toulon in the Heineken Cup final. His decision to leave Wasps, albeit a hard one, seems to be your typical sliding doors moment.
"It took a while for me to buy into the Saracens way, but once I got it I have carried on from there," Vunipola told ESPN. "The two losses against Toulouse taught me a lot and also taught the team a fair bit. It told me that I sometimes needed to differentiate my game instead of just trying to run over people. When you have three players who are as big as you waiting for you, you can't really do much. It's been a massive learning curve but I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Vunipola enjoyed the odd trot with the ball on Saturday but central to Saracens' ethos is their much lauded 'wolfpack' defence, a system which needs complete commitment from their team. Vunipola has been a key cog in that alongside Jacques Burger and Kelly Brown with the perfect blend coming together against Clermont in the Heineken Cup quarter-final. It was a performance of remarkable commitment and accuracy with the frizzy haired Namibian showing a remarkable lack of self-preservation.
"If you listen to some of the audio when I'm next to him, you can hear me shouting "yes Jackie"," Vunipola says of Burger. "I don't know why people seem to single him out as a lot of teams decide to run at him and he's the best tackler in our team. It's one of the best things to watch, it's like seeing someone chopping trees. You sometimes stop and just watch him.
"He's completely different in training. That's what's so cool about him, everyone thinks he's a serious guy but he's nice, funny and genuine. But when he crosses the white line, a bit like Mike Brown, he changes.
"As a team it's all about buying into the culture. I know we sometimes harp on about it but it's a massive part of who we are and what we do. We are very proud of the wolfpack and it shows how important the player's attitude is. You have to buy into it and we get stronger as a result."
While the wolfpack demands relentless focus, every rugby player needs on and off-field balance and that comes through Vunipola's family. When he made the move from Wasps to Saracens, he spoke of how he never wanted to play against his brother Mako again. While Mako keeps him on the straight and narrow at Sarries, with Billy admitting Mako gives him "a clip round the ear" if he is slacking, his parents and friends are keeping a watchful eye on him to make sure he does not get carried away with all the positive press.
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"My parents do a lot of that, my family and friends. They are an outlet into the real world. They let us know what they really think. It keeps us grounded and it's good for us."
While Saracens enjoy Vunipola on a weekly basis, England have been reaping the benefits and it is likely he will play a key role in their Test series against the All Blacks in June. Until his injury during the Six Nations, Vunipola was one of their most influential players and you imagine talk of him focusing on staying grounded is music to Stuart Lancaster's ears, with the coach someone who constantly hammers the drum of humility. There is mutual respect there between the two and Vunipola, when speaking about England, adopts a tone of humbleness.
"Stuart's been fantastic. He's made young players like me feel comfortable in the environment from the off, which is a massive thing for me. I had a lot to prove but I didn't feel I went into the camp having to prove myself as a person. The boys accepted me and a lot of that is down to Stuart and the culture he has brought."
Before thought turns to that trip, the immediate focus is Toulon on Saturday. He believes Toulon's band of Galacticos will offer a similar challenge to Clermont with a ferocious pack backed up by game-changing backs but it would take a brave man to bet against Saracens anchoring in half of what could be a historic double-winning season for the players. But as Vunipola knows, his strides this season will mean little if Saracens fall in Cardiff and at Twickenham a week later in the Premiership final.
"The trophies are to vindicate our success to the people outside of the team and the environment we are in. I think personally it's been a massive success, we've all had a great year and we've enjoyed each other's company. Hopefully we can win trophies to show what we are doing is working. No one likes to lose in the final, so hopefully we can do it."
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Billy Vunipola was speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Vehicle of Premiership Rugby. Billy Vunipola has been named The Land Rover Discovery of The Season. www.Jaguarlandrover.com
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.