Vunipola startling recovery driven by sibling rivalry
After making three successive tackles on his own try line, Billy Vunipola's right knee finally gave way as the clock ticked towards half-time in England's 27-14 victory against Argentina on November 26.
Vunipola's anguished expression instantly relayed the seriousness of the injury. That was duly confirmed by a gruesome post-surgery picture of the knee following an operation to repair the mangled cartilage.
Initially, the best-case scenario was that the No 8 would return for the latter half of the Six Nations, but each update from Saracens made that seem increasingly unlikely. Even last month, when England head coach Eddie Jones raised the idea of employing him from the bench against Ireland next week, Vunipola himself dismissed the possibility out of hand.
In the event, it turns out Jones was a tad pessimistic, with Vunipola now certain to be involved against Scotland on Saturday. England's training plans have him starting ahead of Nathan Hughes as one of four changes. Given how England struggled to collectively replace his ball-carrying dynamism, his return could not be more welcome.
When accounting for such rapid recoveries it is common to ascribe credit to the advancements in sports science and physiotherapy. There is no doubt that Vunipola's rehabilitation was managed by the very best in the business in Phil Morrow, Saracens' head of strength and conditioning.
Yet after making his club comeback against Newcastle last Sunday, Vunipola admitted going to great lengths to avoid entering a cryotherapy chamber, saying:
"I don't really believe in that stuff," before announcing he was off for fish and chips.
So much for sports science, then. Billy's brother, Mako, who also made a quicker than expected comeback from his own knee injury, has an alternative theory, which involves a combination of tough love and sibling rivalry. Sympathy was a commodity in short supply growing up in the Vunipola household. Three generations before them, father Fe'ao, grandfather Sione and great-grandfather Viliami, had represented Tonga in eras when showing vulnerability of any kind was considered anathema. It was a lesson instilled into the young brothers.
"Part of it is growing up that Dad wouldn't accept that we were hurt in any game," Mako, the loosehead prop, said. "If we went down with a dead leg or something, he would say it wasn't a real injury. It comes from our grandad, who always said if we broke a leg he would just buy a new one. That's kind of the mindset we have.
"If I go down he'll come over and say, 'Get back up', if he goes down I say the same to him. I don't want to say like we're the toughest men ever, it's more we don't want to show a weakness to the other brother."
That attitude remains today. When Mako injured his knee in December in Saracens' Champions Cup match against Sale, the brothers were sidelined together. Although they were at different stages of recovery, the competitiveness to be the first to return was still there.
"He needed to be a bit more cautious than myself," Mako said. "For him seeing me getting injured a couple of weeks after and then getting back ahead of him probably pushed him on. I can't speak for him, but it definitely seemed to me that he was getting a bit annoyed that I was running before he even started.
"I think he was jealous that I was running before him. That's what spurred him on to get back.
"For him to come in, he's looked good. It's surprising how well he's moving, and in training he looks up to speed as well. It's good to see him back in and doing what he loves, really.
"He's learnt that the hard way and he's put in the hard graft now with this injury and done all he's needed to. He's come in and learnt all his stuff for here and doesn't look like he's missed a step with his recovery." Mako, the elder Vunipola (he is 26 to Billy's 24) , may have to settle for a place on the bench again in favour of a resurgent Joe Marler, who is poised to win his 50th cap this weekend.
"Joe has come back in and done a great job," Mako said. "For me to try to push myself back into that starting shirt is going to be extremely difficult. I know the challenge ahead of me."
Whether starting or finishing, each Vunipola will have a considerable role to play in the most anticipated Calcutta Cup clash in 27 years.
For Scotland, victory would mean the end of their Twickenham hoodoo, a Triple Crown and seizing control of the destiny of the title. England can make history with a record-equalling 18th consecutive victory, not that forwards coach Steve Borthwick is paying that milestone particular attention. "I can honestly say I have given it zero thought," he said.
The title would also come into play should Ireland lose in Cardiff tomorrow night . Again Borthwick affected to be nonplussed.
"The players are completely focused on the level of our performance," he said.
"That's it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)