Billy Vunipola eyes test debut in England's Six Nations team
Billy Vunipola is amazed to be in the England squad alongside brother Mako just over a year after being hospitalised by a rare viral infection in his lower back.
The dynamic Wasps number eight ended up missing four months of last season after the infection led to discitis and a catalogue of misfortune.
Vunipola contracted pneumonia while he was in hospital and he also suffered severe burns in a hot-water bottle accident as he tried to ease the pain in his lower back.
But when he finally returned to action, Vunipola quickly developed into a key figure in Wasps’ successful battle for Aviva Premiership survival.
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The 20-year-old’s form at the start of this campaign saw him fast-tracked into the England training squad for the RBS 6 Nations and now he is eyeing a Test debut.
“I was in hospital for quite a long time, so to be sat here now (alongside Mako and in the England squad) is quite unbelievable,” said Vunipola, who will join his brother at Saracens next season.
“I had discitis. I got pneumonia and then I burned my back with a hot water bottle, so I was in there for quite a bit longer. I fell asleep on the hot water bottle and forgot to put the outer cover on.
“When I came out of hospital I had to go on antibiotics and go in for regular checks.
“I am not sure I am about to be an England international just yet, but the prospect of it is really exciting.”
The England coaches are keen to let the 19 stone 12lb younger Vunipola loose on the international stage but he is having to bide his time and remain patient. An untimely ankle injury, illness and toothache sidelined him at the start of the Six Nations and cost him the chance of a place on the bench for England’s win against France.
Tom Croft’s return to the squad this week, after nine months out with a neck injury, is likely to force Vunipola to wait a little longer before he makes his England debut.
But Mako is expected to be given his first Test start against Italy on Sunday in place of Joe Marler after consistently making an impact off the bench.
The heavyweight brothers, sons of the former Tonga captain Fe’ao, had been ear-marked for international honours as teenagers – but only if they cut out the junk food.
Billy has lost three stone since he was in the England Under-18s, a fitness drive that was accelerated by the arrival of Ashley Johnson at Wasps.
Mako, who missed the majority of last season with a broken foot, has shed over two stone since moving from Bristol to Saracens – but it has not always been easy.
“I phoned Billy when he was in hospital to ask if he was okay. When I went down to see him he asked me to bring him some food, so I brought him KFC,” Mako said.
“I walked straight through the hospital with it and the nurse was like ‘I thought you were supposed to be rugby players’”
Head coach Stuart Lancaster will confirm his side on tomorrow, but there are likely to be five changes from the 23-13 win against France.
Fly-half Toby Flood will replace the injured Owen Farrell, while Danny Care, James Haskell and Tom Youngs are all pushing for starts.