MARSEILLE, France — England are ready to be “public enemy number one” when they take on Fiji at the weekend in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal, knowing most of the rugby world will be rooting for the opposition, according to No. 8 Billy Vunipola.
Vunipola is playing in his third Rugby World Cup for England and has been part of the side that went four from four in the pool stages here in France. On Sunday England take on Fiji, who beat them at Twickenham back in August, as they look to reach their second World Cup semifinal in as many tournaments.
However, Vunipola knows there will be plenty of French supporters in the Stade Velodrome on Sunday hoping that Fiji emerge victorious, but says England are used to performing the role of pantomime villains.
“I would not say Fiji is their second favourite [team], I would say England is their first least favourite team,” Vunipola said. “In terms of being public enemy No 1, we are happy to take that mantle.
“We are seeing a lot of teams being talked up. There’s a ‘top four’ apparently. Apparently there’s a top four in international rugby. I didn’t know that there was a table.
“We are quietly going about our work and confidently going about our work. Our plan is to play well firstly against Fiji and deal with whatever happens after that after Fiji.”
Vunipola has featured in three of England’s four matches to date, having missed their opening win against Argentina through suspension. He was on the bench for their victories over Japan and Samoa, and started the one-sided win over Chile.
Playing as an impact substitute has been a new role for Vunipola, given that for so long he was a guaranteed starter under previous regimes.
“Being honest I’d like to have played more games, but in saying that, the team I play for is in the quarterfinals,” Vunipola said.
He added: “I’d be lying if I said it was easy but what makes it better is that I know the team is going well and that’s the most important thing – that the team is progressing.
“We’re in the quarterfinals and that’s the most important thing. I could easily be on a flight home having played eighty minutes every week.
“I’d rather be in a team that is winning and is in a quarterfinal and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Vunipola knows the brutality of knockout rugby well, both for club at Saracens and country with England. He as part of the England team that reached the World Cup final in 2019, where they defeated Australia and the All Blacks along the way and says those were occasions where it felt like he was playing for a team in “great unison.”
That’s the goal for England this weekend as they face Fiji, knowing full well that if they are off their game, then the tournament’s over.
“I think plain and simple if you don’t win this week, you go home,” Vunipola said. “So there’s definitely been an edge to training, we saw that today, the way the boys carried themselves in the meeting we just had in reviewing what we saw.
“It’s about taking that forward, the boys can carry it on their shoulders and make sure they are ready for this game. There’s massive emphasis on the importance of this weekend.”