The No.8 is not complacent despite a terrific 12 months.
HE has experienced the most meteoric rise from Aviva Premiership novice to international stalwart and with an England tour to New Zealand now just a matter of weeks away – Saracen Billy Vunipola has made himself Stuart Lancaster’s must-have man.
In the space of a year Vunipola has transformed himself into one of England’s most powerful game-changers – and in-doing so is now England boss Lancaster’s No.1 selection at the base of the scrum.
Since his debut in Argentina last summer, the 21-year-old has joined Saracens, topped the Premiership table, reached the Heineken Cup final and almost pushed England to a Six Nations championship.
An ankle injury sustained in the win against eventual champions Ireland ensured Ben Morgan finished the campaign in his place, but Vunipola knows the Gloucester man is not the only threat to his No.8 shirt.
And Vunipola admits his own story of rags to riches is reason enough to believe there are more contenders than one might suspect for his England jersey.
“I think you can’t rule anyone out,” he said. “If you told me last year that I would be in the position that I am now, a lot of people would have laughed at you.
“You just have to get on with it and I don’t see any No.8 who is English qualified not being in the frame – anything could happen.”
One name that may be added to the list is London Wasps’ Nathan Hughes – the Fijian-born battering ram has taken the Premiership by storm since Christmas.
The 22-year-old, who arrived at Adams Park from Auckland, looks to have filled the void left by Vunipola last summer but with two years until English qualification, he will have to resist the charms of Fiji and Samoa ahead of next year’s World Cup.
“The more the merrier, I guess,” laughed Vunipola. “He’s done awesome. I am happy for him and for Wasps, my old team. I have seen a couple of his games and he is obviously strong and powerful.
“It’s his decision but for me I have just got to keep going at it and trying to improve.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, Vunipola believes Harlequins veteran Nick Easter has not lost a step in his race to regain an England shirt.
“I don’t think I have seen him play a bad game this year – he is consistently playing well,” he added.
“He is strong, he is fit and he goes up in the lineout as well, which is something I can’t do. I think he is definitely up there as one of the best back rows in the Premiership at the moment.
“If you can bring that power and that experience it obviously adds to the team and he brings a lot of both. He is obviously very experienced but he is also a very smart player as well.”
The options are plentiful, with the likes of Exeter Chiefs’ Dave Ewers and Northampton Saints’ Sam Dickinson also in the hunt, while closer to home; Jackson Wray has caught the eye despite having to fight Vunipola for his shirt.
“I think Jackson Wray has been awesome all year, when he scored his hat-trick [against Worcester], his speed just adds another dimension and I love playing with him,” said Vunipola.
“He’s seen the competition in the back row and he’s definitely put his hand up, he likes to carry and takes the burden off and he hits people hard.”
But Vunipola treasured his first Six Nations outing and with a trip to world champions New Zealand just around the corner there is more than enough incentive to return to the fold immediately.
“I enjoyed every minute of it and I believe that everything happens for a reason,” he said.
“I’m not saying I enjoyed getting injured but Ben played really well when he came on and as a team they carried on going forward.
“For me, sitting back, I was a bit envious of the situation but I was quite happy to see them keep winning without me.
“Hopefully I can add to that and it is exciting to battle it out with Ben or Ewers or Dickinson – there are lots of players out there and I just have to stay on my A-game.
“It has taken a lot of hard work to get to where I am today but I think if I stay the same or don’t try and improve then people will overtake me and that’s not the way to be.
“Hopefully I can get myself back in the frame and put my best foot forward – and hopefully that means I will be in an England shirt again.”
Ben Foden was speaking at the launch of the Aviva Premiership Rugby Policy. Sign up for exclusive access to interviews and competitions at premiershiprugby.com/avivarugbypolicy