That Billy Vunipola had some growing up to do under Eddie Jones was beyond question.
Indeed, the one-time serial joker has matured to such a degree there are parts of his serious nature he doesn’t have much regard for. But Jones clearly likes what he’s sees and that’s what counts.
Two years after being criticised by England’s management for a perceived arrogant streak while on tour to New Zealand, Vunipola has learned when to play the joker and when to get down to business.
Billy Vunipola says he has had to become more serious after becoming England vice-captain
Eddie Jones, right, has handed Vunipola the extra responsibilities since taking charge
The No 8 has had a trophy-laden year, winning the European Champions Cup with Saracens
Since Jones challenged him to become the ‘best No 8 in the world’ in February and elevated him to a leadership role alongside fellow unlikely lads Mike Brown, Owen Farrell and captain Dylan Hartley, it is hard to recall the 23-year-old star having a bad game for club or country.
Three man-of-the-match awards as England won the Grand Slam before helping Saracens to domestic and European silverware and starring Down Under against the Wallabies, suggest Vunipola is taking Jones’ challenge very seriously indeed.
‘I was definitely surprised to be made part of the leadership group,’ said Vunipola. ‘I’m not a space cadet but I generally let the older boys do the serious stuff and I’ll just cruise around a bit in the background.
‘Eddie giving me more responsibility has definitely made me focus more. I actually don’t like that person much because I’m much more serious. I make sure I’m not serious all the time. It’s maybe a 70-30 split. Being serious 30 per cent of the time is more than enough.
He was also part of the England side which secured a historic series victory in Australia
Vunipola was a crucial cog in the England side which completed a Six Nations Grand Slam
‘Eddie seems to know what makes me tick. He’s worked with a lot of Pacific Islanders. Guys like Wallaby legends Toutai Kefu and George Smith. Everything he says face-to-face is said with brutal honesty. But I trust what he says.
‘He’s just told me to be myself. Simple, nothing technical, just how Islanders like it. And it kind of worked. I’ve kind of taken off under him.’
After playing a key role alongside his brother and club-mate Mako in England’s historic 3-0 Wallabies whitewash, Vunipola remained in Australia to spend time with his family before a holiday.
I’ve changed my outlook on things. My head was so big before, I thought no-one could touch me and the coaches had no right to tell me I needed to be better.
Billy Vunipola on his growing maturity
Then a holiday in Tonga saw two of the Pacific island’s prodigal sons treated like rugby royalty.
In his younger days, he would have gorged on their generous hospitality but, sticking to the advice of his dietitian girlfriend Simmone, he kept his discipline and maintained his pre-tour weight of around 19st.
He starts against Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park in a re-run of last season’s Aviva Premiership final, which Mark McCall’s men won 28-20, looking to build on last weekend’s opening win over Worcester at Twickenham.
‘I feel good,’ he said. ‘I’m never going to say I feel great but it comes down to working hard and being in the game. I’m weighing the same as when I left Australia, which for me is a big deal because I’ve never had that before.
Vunipola is pictured in action for Saracens against Worcester in the Aviva Premiership
Jones has worked out how to get the best out of his dynamic back row forward
‘It was hard to resist all that stuff on offer in Tonga, whole pigs and stuff, but it was good to come back in the same shape. In the past, I’d usually come back for pre-season around five kilos heavier. But I didn’t want to let myself or my team-mates down.
‘If I was complacent I would have just gone and stuffed my face, celebrating at the end of a great year. But you can always get better and I went out of my way to be disciplined and stay humble.’
The arrogant tag levelled at him by Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team after a below-par contribution in New Zealand in 2014 clearly struck a chord with Vunipola, who admits now he completely lost focus and perspective.
His recent trip back to Tonga, a new-found willingness to listen to coaches and his devout Christian faith, have all helped get Vunipola back on track.
‘I’ve changed my outlook on things,’ he said. ‘My head was so big before, I thought no-one could touch me and the coaches had no right to tell me I needed to be better.
Vunipola said he used to have an arrogant streak which he has worked hard to eradicate
‘Now I take it upon myself to become a better player and go out of my way to ask the coaches what they think I need to do to be better. It’s about working together. Being at Saracens has taught me that. It’s about being honest and humble and it’s helping my rugby.
‘I always used to think about how much I wanted to drive a nice car or have this or that.
‘I forgot about the important stuff. That’s our families, the people at the club, how we treat each other and how we carry ourselves’
With New Zealand’s Kieran Read, Australia’s David Pocock, Italy’s Sergio Parisse and Taulupe Faletau of Wales vying for the title of best No8 in the world, Vunipola still has some way to go.
But that he is on the right path, is no longer in doubt.
WHO IS THE BEST NO 8 IN THE WORLD?
Kieran Read (New Zealand)
Honours: World Cup winner in 2011 and 2015. IRB Player of the Year in 2013.
One of the most skilful No 8s to have played, Read has been central in back-to-back World Cup wins.
David Pocock (Australia)
Honours: World Cup runner-up in 2015.
Unbelievably impressive athlete whose breakdown work is second to none, while his carrying is almost as impressive.
Sergio Parisse (Italy)
Club: Stade Francais
Lavishly gifted, he would still challenge for a World XV spot despite a decade playing for a poor Italy side.
Taulupe Faleta (Wales)
Honours: Six Nations winner 2012 (Grand Slam), 2013.
Outstanding for Wales, carrying relentlessly and defensively tireless.
Louis Picamoles (France)
Honours: 2011 World Cup runner-up.
Low centre of gravity makes him incredibly hard to stop and his workrate is impressive for such a big man.