Billy Vunipola joins England’s exodus to France with planned move to Montpellier

Billy Vunipola’s move to France marks the end of his England career – Getty Images/David Rogers

Billy Vunipola is set to move to Montpellier next season and end his long career with Saracens and England.

The 31-year-old becomes the latest England international to cross the Channel. Saracens colleague Owen Farrell has already confirmed his departure ahead of a move to Racing 92, with Vunipola’s brother Mako also expected to leave.

Telegraph Sport understands Saracens are close to confirming the signing of fly-half Fergus Burke, a 24-year-old New Zealander who was Richie Mo’unga’s understudy at the Crusaders, to cover the loss of Farrell. Louie Johnson, Newcastle’s promising fly-half and former England Under-20 international, is leaving Falcons and would also strengthen Mark McCall’s squad.

Fergus Burke with the Canterbury CrusadersFergus Burke with the Canterbury Crusaders

Fergus Burke (second right) is set to join Saracens – AFP/William West

McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby, admitted on Wednesday that the Vunipola brothers’ long spells at the club were coming to an end.

“I don’t want to talk until they have fully finalized their plans.” It wouldn’t be fair considering what they’ve done for the club, but like I said, they’re coming to the end of their time with us,” said McCall.

Billy Vunipola has made more than 170 appearances for Saracens since joining from Wasps in 2013, winning five Gallagher Premiership titles and three Champions Cups with the club to date. He played a crucial role in Saracens’ European victories over Clermont in 2017 and Leinster in 2019.

Billy and Mako Vunipola receive the Champions Cup trophyBilly and Mako Vunipola receive the Champions Cup trophy

Billy (right) and Mako Vunipola (left) are Saracen legends – Getty Images/David Rogers

The England number 8 has been linked with a move abroad after being left out of Steve Borthwick’s plans for the Six Nations, having last appeared for England as a substitute in the Rugby World Cup semi-final against South Africa in his 75th cap.

Vunipola was overtaken for the England number 8 shirt during the tournament by his Saracens teammate Ben Earl, although Saracens have used Vunipola at number 8 with Earl as an open flanker when the two have played together this season.

Vunipola will join Montpellier’s back-row unit, which also includes Sam Simmonds, the former Exeter Chiefs No.8 and European Rugby Player of the Year.

Midi Olympique in France reported that Vunipola agreed to join the club on Wednesday after holding video calls with Bernard Laporte, Montpellier’s director of rugby. The club was previously coached by Richard Cockerill, who was sacked after just seven games, but Montpellier continues to struggle in the Top 14, currently in 12th place and just two points above the relegation play-off position.

Unstoppable in attack and unchangeable in defense

Reflecting on the impact Farrell, Billy and Mako Vunipola had made earlier this week, McCall thought back to the days after Saracens lost the 2014 Premiership final to Northampton Saints in extra time. That summer, Saracens said goodbye to three key figures in their pack; Borthwick retired, while Matt Stevens and Mouritz Botha returned to South Africa. The club needed new, younger leaders to build on the foundations that had been laid to date.

The ensuing years since that summer have seen four Premiership titles and three European Cups – a very impressive return – with Saracens still in contention to add to that title later this year. As a result, the departure this summer of Farrell and both Vunipola brothers feels seismic, a real end of an era, even with Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Nick Isiekwe, Nick Tompkins and Ben Earl still around, and perhaps Alex Goode too. When others understandably left Saracens on loan a few years ago during the club’s Championship season following their points deduction and relegation, Vunipola, along with his brother and Farrell, opted to stay to take Saracens back to the top.

McCall said: “In 2014-2015 we had to say goodbye to quite a few older players and then Owen, Mako and Billy and that group were 25, 26 and in their prime. We spoke to the board about this group of players leading the club in the near future and they did. They have been phenomenal and they are coming to the end of their time with us and we think we have a group underneath that is just as exciting.

The excessive depth Saracens possess in their back row means they can certainly cover for Vunipola’s exodus in terms of personnel. A gap at number 8 is ready for Earl to step into, which will no doubt please (the now England head coach). Given by Borthwick as both players in the Saracens starting XV since the Rugby World Cup, Earl was the open side with Vunipola at No.8.

Tom Willis should also not be forgotten, the specialist No. 8 who was on the fringes of England’s World Cup squad and is returning from knee surgery this month. Juan Martin Gonzalez, the excellent Argentina international, is better at six but can cover there, and did we mention the in-form Scotland back row Andy Christie? In fact, the main beneficiary could be Toby Knight, the 22-year-old flanker who, with Earl moving out of the seven-shirt, can now add to the starts he made in the open side earlier this season. It’s a plethora of options.

Trying to replace what Vunipola offered Saracens at his peak, however, is another matter. When he reached those heights, he was ruthless as a ball carrier, destroying defensive patterns and dragging tacklers with him across the gain line. His try in the 2019 Champions Cup final against Leinster epitomized that raw power, with the match in the balance and Vunipola bursting from the base of a scrum, passing four tacklers before reaching to score under the posts. In the same final, he was sensational on the other side of the ball with four turnovers. Unstoppable in attack and unchangeable in defense.

Injuries have hampered his career – broken his arm twice, plus knee and ankle ligament problems – but when his fitness and form failed him, he always pushed to get them back. At his best, he seemed irreplaceable. After signing his final contract with the club in 2021, Vunipola said: “I want to leave the club and the shirt in a better place than when I joined.”

Considering what Saracens have achieved with him at number 8 over the past decade, Vunipola has certainly delivered. He earned a payday in Montpellier.

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