HE has experienced the most meteoric rise from Aviva Premiership novice to international stalwart.
Now, with an England tour to New Zealand just a matter of weeks away, Saracen Billy Vunipola has made himself Stuart Lancaster’s must-have man.
In the space of a year, Vunipola has transformed himself into one of England’s most powerful game-changers – and, in doing so, is now England boss Lancaster’s No.1 selection at the base of the scrum.
Since his debut in Argentina last summer, the 21-year-old has joined Saracens, topped the Premiership table and reached the Heineken Cup final as well as pushing England to within a whisker of a Six Nations championship.
An ankle injury sustained in the win against eventual champions Ireland ensured Ben Morgan finished the campaign in his place, but Vunipola knows the Gloucester man is not the only threat to his No.8 shirt.
He says his own story of rags to riches is reason enough to believe there are more contenders than one might suspect for his England jersey.
“I think you can’t rule anyone out,” he said. “If you told me last year I would be in the position I am now, a lot of people would have laughed at you.
“You just have to get on with it and I don’t see any No.8 who is English qualified not being in the frame – anything could happen.”
One name that may be added to the list is London Wasps’ Nathan Hughes, as the Fijian-born battering ram has taken the Premiership by storm since Christmas.
“The more the merrier, I guess,” laughed Vunipola. “He’s done awesome. I am happy for him and for Wasps, my old team. I have seen a couple of his games and he is obviously strong and powerful.”
Vunipola also believes Harlequins veteran Nick Easter has not lost a step in his race to regain an England shirt.
“I don’t think I have seen him play a bad game this year – he is consistently playing well,” he added.
“He is strong, he is fit and he goes up in the line-out as well, which is something I can’t do.”
The options are plentiful, with Dave Ewers, of Exeter, and Northampton’s Sam Dickinson also in the hunt.
“There are lots of players out there and I just have to stay on my A-game,” said Vunipola.
Billy Vunipola was speaking at the launch of the Aviva Premiership Rugby Policy. Sign up for exclusive access to interviews and competitions at premiershiprugby.com/avivarugbypolicy