No team at this World Cup lacks for motivation but, amid the skyscrapers of Japan’s sprawling capital city, England’s desire for redemption is more intense than most. Four years ago they were ejected from their own tournament in the pool stages and a fierce collective determination to put the record straight is increasingly apparent.
Then, as now, England’s campaign hinged on two tough pool games scheduled on consecutive weekends. The memory of those twin 2015 Twickenham defeats against Wales and Australia still grates with all involved and, in the lead‑up to his side’s concluding pool fixtures against Argentina and France, the No 8 Billy Vunipola is eager to exorcise a few ghosts.
Under normal circumstances Vunipola would be looking ahead rather then in the rear-view mirror but the urge to atone for 2015 is, he says, a common goal across the entire squad. “In 2015 we went in with massive expectations on our backs and we didn’t deliver,” said Vunipola, finally fit again after an injury-disrupted couple of seasons.
“That is still pretty vivid in my mind. It’s not something I enjoyed, not something I want to do again. We now know what that feeling is like. You have been hurt before and you don’t want to be like that again. That’s driving us as much as anything else. It is a massive opportunity to right a few wrongs.”
Part of the healing process has involved Eddie Jones bringing in psychologists to try to reduce any lingering mental baggage from previous English World Cup failures. “He has definitely got the baggage out,” said Vunipola, revealing the squad had accepted they needed to be a much tighter unit. “Probably the biggest thing we needed to improve was how together we can be.
“Every other team says they are doing it, but being brutally honest can hurt a few feelings. Being within the confines of England rugby, a lot of us are very precious. When you’re at your club you’re the main man but when you’re with England you’re just the next person. There were a few handbags thrown around but it was really good. It’s really hard but it is a thing: men don’t know how to talk about their feelings. It took us a while but we got there in the end.
“We’re on a different level to any England side I’ve previously been involved with. This is the first team that is willing to go deeper than just say: ‘I think you should have hit this ruck.’ We’ve talked about things we’ve never previously been able to put out there as a group and it’s brought us closer together. There is a lot more respect in that changing room for each other and it’s been really fun. It’s partly about just listening to each other, caring about another person’s opinion and taking it on board, rather than going back to your room and having a little moan to your mate.”
There does indeed seem to be a closer social bond among the 2019 players than has been the case at some World Cup tournaments but, as Vunipola acknowledges, that will be incidental should they be turned over by the Pumas or Les Bleus in their forthcoming two pool games.
“Our destiny is in our own hands still and we have to put down a marker, not for anyone else but for ourselves as a team,” Vunipola said. “We have talked a lot about it but talking is different to doing.
“For me, personally, what drives me a lot is people doubting my personal abilities and also the team. What people say about us can either affect you and make you crumble, or help you prove everyone wrong. That is something I like to use.”
England are in the happy position of having all 31 players available for the Argentina game, with Mako Vunipola vying with Joe Marler and Ellis Genge for a role in the matchday 23. If his brother is feeling under any extra pressure, though, Billy says he would be the last to know. “Whether he’s happy or sad, his face is always the same. You’ll have to ask my wife how he is because he doesn’t tell me.”
Either way, having helped his team to swat aside Tonga and the USA, the Saracens’ No 8 is itching for the match on Saturday. “This is probably the best shape I’ve been in for the last two years so to not take advantage of that would be terrible for me.”
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