Billy Vunipola joins English exodus to France with planned Montpellier move

Billy Vunipola in action for England
Billy Vunipola's move to France will signal the end of his England career - Getty Images/David Rogers

Billy Vunipola is poised to join Montpellier next season and bring his long career with Saracens and England to an end.

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

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

Fergus Burke with the Canterbury Crusaders
Fergus Burke (second right) is close to joining Saracens - AFP/William West

McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, admitted on Wednesday that the Vunipola brothers’ long stints with the club were coming to a close.

“I don’t want to talk without them having completely finalised their plans. It wouldn’t be fair given what they have done for the club but like I said they are coming towards the end of their time with us,” McCall said.

Billy Vunipola has played over 170 games for Saracens since he joined from Wasps back in 2013, winning five Gallagher Premiership titles and three Champions Cups with the club so far. He played a pivotal role in Saracens’ European triumphs over Clermont in 2017 and Leinster in 2019.

Billy and Mako Vunipola lift the Champions Cup trophy
Billy (right) and Mako Vunipola (left) are Saracens legends - Getty Images/David Rogers

The England No 8 has been linked with a move overseas after he was left out of Steve Borthwick’s plans for the Six Nations, having last appeared for England as a replacement in the Rugby World Cup semi-final against South Africa in his 75th cap.

Vunipola was overtaken for the England No 8 shirt during the tournament by his Saracens team-mate Ben Earl, although Saracens have used Vunipola at No 8 with Earl at openside flanker when the two have played together this season.

Vunipola will join a Montpellier back-row unit which already 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, having held video conversations with Bernard Laporte, the Montpellier director of rugby. The club were previously coached by Richard Cockerill, who was sacked after just seven games, but Montpellier continue to struggle in the Top 14, currently in 12th place and only two points above the relegation play-off position.

Unstoppable in attack and unshiftable in defence

When reflecting on the impact made by Farrell, Billy and Mako Vunipola earlier this week, McCall thought about 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 put in place up to that point.

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

McCall said: “In 2014-15 we had to say goodbye to quite a number of senior players and back then, Owen and Mako and Billy and that group were 25, 26 and in their prime. We were talking to the board about this group of players who were going to lead the club for the foreseeable future and they did. They were phenomenal, and they are coming to the end of their time with us and we think we have got a group under that who are equally exciting.”

The outrageous depth Saracens possess in their back row means they can certainly cover Vunipola’s exit in terms of personnel. A gap at No 8 is ready for Earl to move into, which will no doubt please (the now England head coach) Borthwick given when both players have been in the Saracens starting XV since the Rugby World Cup, Earl has been the openside with Vunipola at No 8.

Tom Willis cannot be forgotten either, the specialist No 8 who was on the fringes of England’s World Cup squad and is due back from knee surgery this month. Juan Martin Gonzalez, the excellent Argentina international, is better at six but can cover there, and did we mention in-form Scotland back row Andy Christie yet? In fact, the main beneficiary might 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 at openside earlier in the season. It’s a plethora of options.

Trying to replace what Vunipola offered Saracens at his peak, however, is another matter. When hitting those heights he was relentless as a ball-carrier, wrecking defensive patterns and dragging tacklers with him over the gain-line. His try in the 2019 Champions Cup final against Leinster embodied that raw power, with the game finely poised and Vunipola bursting off the base of a scrum, going through four tacklers before reaching out to score under the posts. In that same final he was sensational on the other side of the ball with four turnovers. Unstoppable in attack and unshiftable in defence.

Injuries have hampered his career – breaking his arm, twice, plus the knee and ankle ligament issues – but when fitness and form deserted him he always grafted away 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 shirt in a better place than when I joined it.”

Given what Saracens have achieved with him at No 8 over the past decade, Vunipola certainly delivered. He has earned a payday in Montpellier.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.