FEATURE INTERVIEW | Billy Vunipola
Billy Vunipola has been a colossus for Saracens since joining his brother Mako at the club after leaving Wasps nine years ago.
The 29-year-old has been a consistent performer for Mark McCall’s side, and at his best is a sheer force of nature with his explosive ball carrying having scattered defences all over Europe.
Vunipola’s best form has coincided with arguably the most successful period in the clubs long and illustrious history. Saracens have been crowned English champions four times and won the Heineken Champions Cup on three occasions with Vunipola packing down at No 8.
The 61-cap England international recently reached the significant milestone of 150 appearances for Saracens, and he insists joining the club is the best choice he’s made in his career.
“When I joined the club, I saw how highly they regarded how many games you play for this club,” he said. “I wanted to be in the 100 club to start with, and now to hit 150 games is amazing.
“I want to keep going to see how many games I can get under my belt in my time here at Sarries. It was a tough decision to leave Wasps for Sarries at the time.
“With hindsight it’s easy to say but I wanted to come to a club who was going to challenge. They’ve made me a better player, and a better person as well.
“Yes, it’s been really enjoyable to be back in the Premiership with Saracens. Obviously, I haven’t been playing with England so being back on the grind week in week out with the boys has been a different challenge but one that I’ve really really enjoyed.
“Hopefully, we can give ourselves a chance of winning the thing (Premiership).”
Saracens have enjoyed a successful season since winning promotion back to the Premiership and have qualified for the end of season play-offs with one remaining.
But they suffered their first major setback of the season in France, getting knocked out of the European Challenge Cup at the semi-final stage by Toulon in the Cote D’Azur. Saracens were out of character, getting outmuscled in the tight as they drowned in the vociferous atmosphere of the Stade Felix Mayol.
Vunipola takes every defeat seriously and is honest in his assessment of Saracens’ performance. But he insists that defeat has sharpened the focus of this squad.
“The biggest issue we had with the Toulon game is that we didn’t turn up,” he said. “I don’t know what it was, and I’m struggling to put my finger on it.
“The biggest thing we needed to do was to quieten down the crowd, but we didn’t. Once they scored that early try you could sense that the crowd knew a big performance was coming from their team, and they got behind them.
“We didn’t step up to the mark, and essentially that’s what let us down. But we are determined to put that right this weekend, and that type of performance won’t happen again. We are disappointed with the fact we lost a big game, a semi-final against a big team.
“I think the positive that we took out of it is that we will have learned from that experience, especially playing in such a hostile environment. We are a young team with quite a lot of new players, and I don’t think a lot of them would have been in that pressurised environment before. "
Even though Saracens have already booked safe passage into the last four Vunipola insists they are motivated by the prospect of playing a semi-final at a packed out StoneX Stadium.
“It’s not very often the away team wins in the semi-final but for us it’s about giving us the best opportunity to move forward into the next round, and essentially the final.
“That happens by giving ourselves a home semi-final. There’s that goal in the back of our heads that we want to try and challenge for the Premiership, but our biggest challenge if we want to get there is to put ourselves in the best position possible with a home semi-final."