Billy Vunipola is concerned that playing in the Championship for Saracens next season will hamper his chances of playing for the British & Irish Lions in South Africa next year.
The 27-year-old England No 8, who won his 50th cap in the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand last year, has not spoken to Warren Gatland, who has been reappointed as the Lions head coach. Vunipola has some ground to make up having claimed, after Sean O’Brien’s criticism of the coaching on the 2017 trip to New Zealand, that the series would have been won rather than drawn had England’s Eddie Jones been in charge.
Vunipola was picked in that squad but pulled out because of a shoulder injury and he has set himself the target of playing in the series against South Africa, the side that defeated England in the World Cup final.
“It is going to be tough to get myself in the position to be on the plane to South Africa,” said Vunipola, who will at least not have a full year in the Championship, with Saracens involved in the Premiership and European Champions Cup for the next two months.
“There is a little voice in my head saying we are in the Championship and so out of the shop window. I, and the other England players at Saracens, have to make sure we are in the right condition physically so we can perform at the next level. We may not have anything to play for in the Premiership, but there is pride in the team we represent and the goal of playing for England in the autumn.”
Vunipola missed England’s first four matches in this year’s Six Nations because of an arm injury. He took that break, and the lockdown imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, to reflect on where he stood at the point when he should have been near the peak of his career. “I have tried to improve as a person on and off the pitch,” he said.
“I had a real good look at myself. I think I could have been better at the World Cup in terms of off the field. I think my head was in the clouds, something I always battle with.
“I find it hard to keep my feet on the ground when I do something well. That’s been a massive challenge for me over this period of lockdown. If you reach success again, both as a team or personally, how do I stay grounded?”
Vunipola said he had used the time to reconnect with his brother, Mako, a fellow Saracens and England forward. “I think he sees there is change in me. We talk a lot more. We didn’t really get on and that was my fault because I would never make the effort to listen to him because I thought I knew the crack. We have improved our relationship and I want to keep it that way.”