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‘I’m keen to get my elbows dirty’ - Vunipola plots his own path towards Six Nations fitness
Elsewhere yesterday, the Springboks’ ‘very good’ Eben Etzebeth returned in Toulon’s win at Racing.

BILLY VUNIPOLA WILL continue to favour playing over training as he plots his own path towards fitness for England’s Guinness Six Nations title defence.

Vunipola was the only member of Saracens’ England contingent on parade at Vallis Way on Saturday as the country’s solitary match of the weekend ended in a 27-26 defeat by Ealing Trailfinders.

While Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George have been put on specialised pre-season programmes to prepare them for the Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland on 6 February, a different approach has been taken with Vunipola.

Both England head coach Eddie Jones and Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall have stated that the 28-year-old number eight gains more benefit from time spent on the pitch having endured long spells of inactivity while recovering from four broken arms.

“Firstly I’d rather play than train. I can’t get my head around training all the time as it’s not my goal,” Vunipola said.

“I really enjoy playing and being around the boys and also having something to look forward to at the end of the week. I’m a very emotional person so that brings me up as well.

“Also, I’ve been injured a lot so I want to take advantage of every game I get, every opportunity to toughen my body up to be ready for whatever comes in the future.

“I’ve been out for a few months consecutively and for me personally I feel the more I play the better my body is at adapting to the rigours of the game.”

Vunipola’s preference for playing extends to the Trailfinders Challenge Cup, a pre-season tournament that acts as the curtain raiser to the Greene King IPA Championship.

A Saracens team weakened by the absence of their England players and eight personnel banned for their involvement in the Barbarians’ breach of coronavirus protocols in October suffered a setback in their first match since being relegated from the Gallagher Premiership, but amends can be made at Doncaster Knights on Saturday.

Only six weeks ago Vunipola was lifting the Autumn Nations Cup at Twickenham, but he is happy to continue roaming the grounds of the second tier of English club rugby.

“I’ll talk to Mark on Monday but at the moment I’m all in. It’s not my decision. I just want to help the team as much as I can,” he said.

I am keen. We have been training on rubber crumb the last few weeks and I would like to get on some grass. I hope it’s quite muddy at Doncaster – I’m quite keen to get my elbows and knees dirty.”

Jones names his Six Nations squad on Friday, with the players gathering the following week at St George’s Park, the Staffordshire training base used by England’s football team.

“I just hope the WiFi there is good. I hear it’s out in the sticks but with the footballers using it I know the WiFi will be class,” Vunipola said.

“I look forward to it. We spend a lot of time in our rooms so you need to get something to watch. I am off Netflix, I am more of a YouTube man. I love watching eating videos, bodybuilding and random stuff. Eating challenges – Beard v Food, he is the man.”

england-v-south-africa-2019-rugby-world-cup-final-yokohama-stadium Adam Davy South Africa's Eben Etzebeth lifting the Webb Ellis cup after South Africa won the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. Adam Davy

Elsewhere, Toulon coach Patrice Collazo bas praised South Africa’s Rugby World Cup winner Eben Etzebeth after he returned from concussion in Sunday’s 29-23 victory at Racing 92 in the French Top 14.

Etzebeth, who won the last of his 85 Springboks caps in the 2019 final, missed more than four weeks of action after suffering a head knock in the European Cup win over Sale on 12 December.

“He played at the level we expect. Tonight I saw a very good Eben Etzebeth, like I saw very good French internationals and very good non-internationals,” Collazo told reporters post-match.

“When there are individual performances on a collective basis like that, a team performance follows.”

The visitors move up to fourth in the standings, three points behind the third-placed Parisians who lost for a second time at home this campaign.

Racing, the 2016 champions, made eight changes from the win at Clermont two weeks ago as Australia full-back Kurtley Beale was among those to return.

Etzebeth’s selection was one of six changes by Collazo as they eyed just a second success on the road this season. 

The away side deservedly led 17-3 after an entertaining first quarter as Swann Rebbadj and Baptise Serin made the most of their early dominance.

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Virimi Vakatawa, one of 14 members of France’s Six Nations squad in the teams at the La Defense Arena, wasted a golden chance to score for Racing after Gabin Villiere knocked the ball out his hands while in the opposition in-goal area after 21 minutes.

Vakatawa’s outfit led 20-17 with a minute of the half to go as Wenceslas Lauret and Teddy Thomas crossed before Louis Carbonel kicked a penalty to bring the teams level at the break. 

Maxine Machenaud and fly-half Carbonel, also in les Bleus’ set-up for the Six Nations, traded penalties and Collazo’s men led 29-23 with five minutes left.

The Champions Cup finalists pressed on in the closing moments but their scrum, 10 metres out with less than three minutes to go, was penalised.

Scrum-half Serin cleared his lines for the win, a first win at Racing since 2012.


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