Honesty is always refreshing but rarely, if ever, has a senior England player publicly described his own form as “rubbish” before a pivotal Six Nations trip to Cardiff. Billy Vunipola has gone even further, suggesting his coach Eddie Jones “probably thinks someone has cloned me” because of his minimal impact on the tournament so far.
Not even the No 8’s harshest online critics could have offered a more withering assessment, with the 28-year-old refusing to sugar-coat his recent brace of below-par Twickenham efforts against Scotland and Italy. Vunipola said: “I’ve just been playing rubbish, I can’t lie and I need to turn up this weekend.
“At the moment Eddie probably thinks someone has cloned me. The person he thought he had in his team is at home and the other person is here. I need to make sure he’s got the right clone because, at the moment, he’s had the wrong one. You know you’re playing badly when your mum and dad are the only ones texting you saying they love you.”
Vunipola is far from the only England player to have underperformed but without his usual gainline presence and 80-minute physical contribution, Jones’s side have struggled so visibly that a back-row reshuffle will be inevitable if Wales collect a Triple Crown at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.
Vunipola has scored just two tries in his last 25 Test starts dating back to 2017: one against the USA at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan and the other six weeks earlier in a warm-up game against Wales at Twickenham.
A lack of recent club rugby for Saracens has not helped. Vunipola, whose baby son Judah is now almost four months old, concedes he has found life tough back inside the England bubble. “Three weeks ago was the first time I left my wife and kid at home. I was sat in my room thinking: ‘This Covid stuff is rubbish. I just want to be at home with my wife.’ I was almost feeling sorry for myself. That took away from my performance in training and you play how you train. I haven’t been training very well; last week was probably the best I have trained in the last three weeks. This week is a big week for myself and I’m ready for it.”
A further motivational trigger was being replaced against Italy and watching the rest of the game from the stands. “I was sat on the bench and was like: ‘Right, I don’t like this feeling, how do I get in the team and how do I stay on the pitch?’ I just haven’t played well at all. You get to a point where you start overthinking things but in reality it’s pretty simple. You get the ball in your hands and try and win the gainline or you try and stop them from winning the gainline. I haven’t been myself and I need to go out there and show what I can do.”
Vunipola, accordingly, is looking to “keep it simple” against Wales and recapture the hard edge that has seen him preferred to Ben Earl, Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds. “I could play a hundred more games at the level I am playing now and I’d still be rubbish, so it’s not about playing yourself into form. It’s about going out there and having the courage to get to the end of what you think your limit is.
“Because of my lack of game time, I guess I am trying to put myself in positions where I don’t have to run as much, so that I still get the ball and have the same effect. But if you are doing that, you are holding back. There was a great NFL coach who talked about fatigue making a coward out of everyone. I guess I’ve been a bit of a coward the last two weeks, because I have been hiding from being fatigued.”
Pointed social media criticism has also aroused his competitive side. “Sometimes it does cut me and sometimes it doesn’t. One thing it does do is focus my mind. If you want to be the person that I want to be – in the England team wearing the eight shirt – then you’ve got to back it up on the pitch. That where I want to do my talking.”
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