As he prepares to battle his cousin tonight in the Six Nations, England’s wrecking ball tells Ross McLean about his fall from grace
ENGLAND will bid to exorcise the ghost of a harrowing and Grand Slam-ending defeat to Wales at the Millennium Stadium tonight, but the clash also presents a chance for powerhouse Billy Vunipola to complete his own international redemption.
Vunipola was not involved on that haunting day when England capitulated 30-3 in 2013, nor was he for the final two autumn internationals against Samoa and Australia in November after being unceremoniously dropped by head coach Stuart Lancaster.
His place was taken by Gloucester’s Ben Morgan who crossed the line twice in the 26-17 slaying of the Wallabies, but a broken leg has ruled out the man in possession of the No8 shirt for the remainder of the season, paving the way for Vunipola’s resurgence.
He has been back to his destructive best for Saracens lately, most poignantly in their European Champions Cup victory over Munster last month, displaying traits which eluded him against New Zealand and South Africa in November.
The 22-year-old wrecking ball enjoyed a meteoric rise following his Red Rose debut during the 2013 tour of Argentina, but after his slump in form was exposed in the autumn, he knows atonement beckons.
“It was a good learning curve at that stage of my career,” Vunipola told City A.M. “It’s very hard to take getting dropped, personally and as a player. I know what happened and I was lucky that it happened quite early on.
“I was just a bit comfortable and wasn’t really bothered about competition, I thought I would just make it. At the time I was just so confident, it was borderline arrogance.
“It’s something I’ve looked at and changed and you could say I’ve got a different mindset going forward.
“I got dropped but that’s life and you just have to get on with it and I think I’ve done that quite well since I’ve been back. Playing for Saracens has helped me get back into the England fold and hopefully I can take that on.”
An international renaissance in Cardiff has more than a waft of irony for a player who, as a youngster, enriched his experience of the game in the principality and could have represented Wales had circumstances dictated.
His father, Fe’ao, brought the family over from Tonga in search of a more prosperous life, landing at Heathrow airport shortly before the turn of the century and playing out his rugby days for Pontypool and Pontypridd.
Fe’ao is a former captain of his country and one of seven siblings to represent Tonga, while Sydney-born Billy, along with older brother Mako, are the fourth generation of the Vunipola family to assume international status in the game.
The Vunipola brothers first played together for Pontypool district under-11s but will now join forces – Mako is a replacement tonight – as their adopted country bids to dispatch the nation which shaped their formative years. The family ties do not stop there and cousin Taulupe Faletau, who docked in Wales in 1998 aged seven when his father signed for Ebbw Vale, is the Red Dragons’ No8 for the Six Nations opener.
Direct opponents in the white hot, cauldron-like, atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium they may be, and, while deeply proud of his family heritage, Vunipola refuses to allow his focus to be clouded by sentiment.
“It’s a massive honour to be called up every time but to be called up with my brother is extra special,” added Vunipola.
“But we cannot dwell too much. It would be good if we actually get to play together again as it’s always massive to achieve that. We always dreamed of doing it but it’s hard to achieve dreams.
“And I have grown up with Taulupe, it will be like playing against your brother. Wales has a massive place in my heart, we have a lot of friends there, but you’ve got to go out there and do a job and push ties to one side. It’s international rugby.”
Vunipola is set to win his 13th cap as England begin their quest to end a four-year wait for a Six Nations crown, while 12 years have elapsed since their last Grand Slam when the class of 2003 proceeded to lift the World Cup.
But it is the presence of veteran No8 Nick Easter, who will provide second-row cover from the bench, that Vunipola hopes will pay a long-term dividend, with his longevity acting as the antithesis of his own autumn meltdown.
“I’m hoping Nick [Easter] can teach me a few tricks, he has been around for ages and has great experience,” said Vunipola.
“But aside from that, it would be a massive statement if we were to win it going into the World Cup, but it’s the Six Nations and it’s hugely patriotic and there is a lot of pride. We all remember what happened the last time we played in Wales. I wasn’t involved but it was painful to watch. We will be looking to turn them over and it will be a good marker to set.”
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SIX NATIONS 2015 FIXTURES
■ Friday 6 February
Wales v England, 8.05pm
■ Saturday 7 February
Italy v Ireland, 2.30pm
France v Scotland, 5pm
■ Saturday 14 February
England v Italy, 2.30pm
Ireland v France, 5pm
■ Sunday 15 February
Scotland v Wales, 3pm
■ Saturday 28 February
Scotland v Italy, 2.30pm
France v Wales, 5pm
■ Sunday 1 March
Ireland v England, 3pm
■ Saturday 14 March
Wales v Ireland, 2.30pm
England v Scotland, 5pm
■ Sunday 15 March
Italy v France, 3pm
■ Saturday 21 March
Italy v Wales, 12.30pm
Scotland v Ireland, 2.30pm
England v France, 5pm
All matches live on BBC1