Once he had the talk with Eddie Jones which confirmed his shock England exile, at a pub in St Albans last summer, Billy Vunipola realised that he needed to talk to someone else.
The giant Saracens No 8 swiftly accepted that his career had stalled and he needed help — and some harsh home truths.
That led to several months of daily therapy which allowed the younger Vunipola brother to become mentally and physically reinvigorated, leading to a recall for this Australia tour, after more than a year out of the national squad.
Billy Vunipola swiftly accepted that his career had stalled and he needed help last summer
A talk with Eddie Jones confirmed his shock England exile,at a pub in St Albans last summer
In his first major interview since March last year, the 29-year-old opens up about a turbulent time of injuries, relegation, loss of form, the wake-up call from Jones and a painstaking personal revival. Being told that he was in danger of squandering his vast talent turned out to be the message he really needed to hear.
Having been left ‘gutted’ by the outcome of his meeting with Jones in Hertfordshire, Vunipola opted for a new strategy, to alter his professional mindset.
‘I had never really believed in psychologists before,’ he says. ‘But after talking to Eddie, I felt like I needed someone to tell me the honest truth. I found someone who was class. We talked nearly every day for six or seven months.
‘One of our first conversations was me complaining about being relegated and he just said, ”What can you do about it?” I said, ”Nothing”. And he said, ”What can you do about your rugby?” and I was like, ”Everything”. That was the start of my journey. I still talk with him here and there. He’s been a massive help.
‘Obviously my faith is massive too. I think sometimes I rely on it too much — not to do any work. I forgot to do the work bit. I was blessed with the gift but I’ve got to work on it. That’s where this guy came in.
‘I needed to roll my sleeves up and work again. He basically said I climbed up the mountain, I was really hungry to get to where I wanted to get to, and I got there. And now everyone’s still climbing higher and I’m down here.
‘He said, ”If you stop now, you will regret it for the rest of your life. And if you carry on then who knows what could happen”. So when he put it in those words, I was ready to throw it all in with him.’
Vunipola’s decision to turn to a psychologist was a reflection of his desire for a dose of reality, no matter how much it hurt. At Saracens, the club where he is such an iconic, valued figure, he found that the feedback he received was too gentle.
Vunipola found that the feedback he received at his club Saracens was too gentle
‘I went and looked for outside help because a psychologist doesn’t know who I am,’ he says. ‘He doesn’t know what I’m like.
‘The coaches at Saracens are awesome but I felt like they weren’t as harsh on me as they could have been, because they know me too well and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. But I needed someone to tell me the truth. And that’s what happened.’
Reflecting on the fall and rise he has been through, Vunipola referred to it as a ‘little snag’, which is quite the under-statement. For a time, there were doubts about whether he would return to the England squad, as Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds filled the void at No 8.
But they were ruled out of this tour due to injury and the mighty Saracen had made a convincing Test case, culminating in a thunderous performance in the Premiership final, in front of Jones at Twickenham.
That was the Billy of 2016 and he spoke of how his improved physical condition has allowed him to scale those heights again.
There were doubts about whether he would return to the England squad, as Alex Dombrandt (left) and Sam Simmonds (right) filled the void at No 8
‘My weekly routine was giving me so much confidence that I was going to be in the game for 80 minutes,’ he says. ‘I don’t think I’d had that for two, two and a half years. I had been lying to myself by thinking that I was going to turn up and it was just going to happen.’
Losing weight has helped: ‘I would turn up at the club and do extra fitness, at 7am. My diet is a massive factor and I’d be weighing in every day. In the past, sometimes I wouldn’t weigh in and just look in the mirror and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I look good!’. Three months later I’d put on six kilos (13lb). That’s me not doing my job.
‘Coming into England camp, on our first day in we have to do skin folds (body-fat tests). Normally, I’d be so scared to stand there, but I knew exactly where I was and how I was feeling, so that gave me a lot of confidence. Training is hard but I can handle it because of the work I’ve put in.
‘At the moment I weigh about 132 kilos (20st 11lb). During the Championship year I’d be 136, I’d get it down to 134, then bounce up to 137. I looked heavy. That was something that I wanted to eradicate; that kind of worry in the back of my head.’
His England recall was a joyous moment at a difficult time. He and his club-mates were drowning their sorrows after losing the title decider to Leicester when the news reached Vunipola. ‘We were out in London at the time,’ he says. ‘I was trying not to drink too much in case Eddie called, and when he did I was made up.
His thunderous performance in the Premiership final made a convincing case for a Test recall
His England recall was a joyous moment at a difficult time after Saracens lost the title decider
‘Normally those Sunday sessions last until the early hours of the morning but I got home at about 10.30pm. I wanted to give myself every chance of doing well here.’
By his own admission, the first game back was a let-down. In the series opener in Perth, he did not have much impact as England were beaten. ‘I probably played within myself,’ he says. ‘A lot of that was down to the fact that I didn’t want to make a mistake.’
What followed was a verdict from afar containing more of the harsh truths that he obviously uses as vital fuel. This time, the jolt came from his father — former Tonga captain Fe’ao Vunipola.
‘He’s not out here but he sent me a really long message saying how disappointed he was with my performance, how he had been excited to see me play and felt flat after the game because he hadn’t seen the person he thought was going to turn up,’ says Billy.
By his own admission, the first game back in the series opener in Perth was a let-down
This time, the jolt came from his father — former Tonga captain Fe’ao Vunipola
‘I wanted him to not send me another message like that, so that was one of the small motivating factors.’
Stung by the criticism, Vunipola delivered a monumental display as England levelled the series in Brisbane. He pounded the Wallaby defence relentlessly, to give the tourists precious, gainline-busting momentum.
He was not the official man of the match but he should have been. Now he believes he can play his part in helping England win the series at the Sydney Cricket Ground, saying: ‘I reckon I will be better this week.’
The confidence comes from being mentally rejuvenated. He found the right person to talk to and it has worked. Vunipola is back where he belongs.
But after a monumental display in Brisbane, he believes he can play his part in helping England win the series at the SCG