Jamie George: ‘Billy Vunipola is an incredible person’
‘Having spoken to him, it comes across very differently when he explains it to you’
Jamie George with England and Saracens team mates Mako and Billy Vunipola. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
“I’m never going to be a leader that starts screaming at people, demanding things,” Jamie George says quietly in a room at the physiotherapy and rehabilitation clinic which he and his childhood friend, Rhys Carter, set up last year.
“There’s a time and place for that, and yes I will bring it, but my best feature is how I relate to people. I like to think I know each person individually and what’s best said to Maro [ITOJE]might be different to George [KRUIS]. These different things matter – as does the tone in which you say them.”
Small differences do matter and it is striking that George has suggested that, instead of opting for the usual rugby routine of an interview at Saracens’ training ground in St Albans, we meet at his alternative place of business in Hoddesdon. This rounded approach will help the 28-year-old England hooker as the next six months could be the most memorable of his career.
A fascinating European Champions Cup final against Leinster on Saturday could be the first part of a double for Saracens, with the club likely to feature in the Premiership final. George and his fellow Saracens’ internationals will then have a five-week break before joining the furnace of Eddie Jones’ World Cup training camp.
George will travel to Japan as, unequivocally, England’s first-choice hooker. It took him three years to reach this position as, with Jones favouring Dylan Hartley’s leadership qualities, George won his first 19 caps as a substitute. Now, surely, only injury will prevent him from wearing the No 2 shirt at the World Cup. George has needed composure, resolve and the emotional intelligence he has just described.
“That’s a huge strength of mine,” he says. “At Saracens I’m certainly seen as a leader and if I’m selected for the World Cup I’m going to try to make that forward pack my own and stamp my authority. We’re lucky to have very knowledgeable players who have a good feel for the game at Saracens. We’ve also grown together so we’re able to have firm words with each other but, at the same time, put our arms round afterwards and say, ‘Sorry, mate, maybe that’s not the right thing to have done.’ The more we can transfer that to England the better.”
I’m intrigued to hear how George reacted to Billy Vunipola when, last month, his teammate liked and then defended a homophobic post from the Wallabies’ Israel Folau who had warned that hell awaits all “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters.” Vunipola and Folau are Christians but there was little forgiveness or love in the Australian’s castigation of “sinners”.
George treads carefully, as he is fond of Vunipola, but he shakes his head. “I’ve said this to Billy so he won’t mind me saying it here. The actual post was written pretty poorly, and it was very open to interpretation. Having spoken to him, it comes across very differently when he explains it to you. Unfortunately, people interpreted it their own way. Whether I agree with what he said or not, he’s entitled to his opinion. But a little conversation certainly did happen, on a one-to-one basis.
“Billy’s an incredible person. He genuinely cares about people and he was very open and honest when challenged by us. It says a lot about him, and we massively respect him for that. It was a huge challenge as a squad but Billy knew he had put us at risk. He was sorry for that and we supported him wholeheartedly. We showed that against Munster. ”
In the European Cup semi-final, which Saracens won comfortably, Vunipola was booed and even confronted by a fan after the game. He was still voted man of the match. Were they motivated by the criticism of Vunipola – which followed condemnation of the way in which Saracens have, allegedly, stretched the salary cap?
“You prefer to be loved,” George says, “but we spoke about setting aside people’s opinions of us and focusing on the respect and care inside our bubble. Something will always come from the outside. Billy being booed, the salary cap, all that stuff. But what can we control? Our performance, preparing as well as we can, getting the right mind-set.”
This weekend will provide a defining test. “Leinster have been the best team in Europe the last two years,” George agrees. “This season we’ve challenged ourselves to push them as far as we can. I think we’ve done that. We’re the only unbeaten team in the tournament and there’s huge confidence within the group. But it’s going to take a huge effort.”
Did last year’s clear loss to Leinster in the quarter-finals galvanize Saracens? “I think so. It hurt and when you’re well and truly beaten you have to learn as much as you can. When you look at our next performances in the semi-final and final of the Premiership [which Saracens won] we were significantly better than against Leinster. We learned a huge amount about what we need to do when playing at the intensity and pace Leinster have done the last few years – and which we did in 2016 [when winning the double]. We can definitely win but we’ll need to be better than against Munster.
“But there’s a sense in the group we’re going somewhere special. We’re taking it to where no club has been before in Europe. That’s what it will take to win because these two teams are really pushing the standards of club rugby.”
George’s status as the most popular Englishman among his Irish counterparts is obvious – particularly when he talks about his friendship with Conor Murray at Munster and various Leinster players which he forged on the Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand where he started all three Tests. “I’ve made friends for life and I was at [LEINSTER PROP]Jack McGrath’s wedding last summer. I was the only English person there and it was a big few days with lots of fun as the Leinster guys were there. So there will be fair few familiar faces [THIS]weekend.”
Who is George closest to among the Leinster players? “Jack and Johnny Sexton would be two major ones. Johnny’s a brilliant guy. I was speaking to my girlfriend about this because it’s funny how your perspective of people who play sport is so different. Everyone in world rugby respects Johnny. He’s an incredible player, incredibly focused and demands excellence every day. On that Lions tour my respect for him went through the roof. But when you get him at a wedding or you have a few beers on tour there’s no better person. It’s always funny playing against guys you get on with. You have a bit of a craic with them before but then the whistle goes … “
Unlike a year ago, when Hartley was still England captain, George says: “I’ve got huge confidence in my game now. The Saracens and England coaches want my hands on the ball as much as possible as I generally have a better game then. Rugby is moving on so quickly you need to add much more.”
George admits that he experienced difficulties during his extended wait to break into England’s starting team. “There were so many times I was frustrated and that number [of substitute appearances before his starting debut] kept creeping up. I think it’s a world record. Sitting in a chair can be frustrating but I always speak to my old man.”
His father, Ian, was on the England bench nine times without earning a cap. “He actually never got on the field,” George says. “So he always gave me perspective as he would have given anything to get one minute of play. I think that led to me having good performances off the bench whether for three or 30 minutes. It’s put me in a much better position now.”
Is he showing leadership in an England shirt – as this is an area where England’s coaches seemingly had doubts about him? “I was happy with how far I came leadership-wise in the Six Nations. I think I took control of the forward pack – but I learned a lot of lessons. The Wales game is a fine example. I could have done things a lot better – particularly in the scrum.”
England beat Ireland decisively, and played some compelling rugby during the tournament, but they lost to Wales and drew against Scotland “We were very clear with the plan against Ireland and the first lineout had me throwing all the way over it and straight into Manu Tuilagi’s hands. He set the tone and we scored that early try. It was exactly what we’d planned. Ireland were perceived to be unbeatable but we set our marker down for the rest of the campaign. But we made little mistakes against Wales and lost our discipline. We had good positive momentum but the second half was almost a role reversal. It was negative on negative. There ”
Against Scotland, England were 31-0 up before conceding 38 points. Only a late try salvaged a 38-38 draw. “Carnage,” George says ruefully. “First half we were cruising, playing some of our best rugby. We tried to put on a bit of a show but we weren’t switched on mentally. Our physicality and intensity dropped so we can learn a huge amount from that game and Wales too. You learn a lot in defeat and we’re in a better position going into the World Cup. We’ve gone through a lot and hopefully that puts us in good stead when we’re up against it in Japan. We’re right up there in terms of the best teams in the world and we have a real chance.”
His work away from the game offers a stimulating break. Carter, a fully-qualified physiotherapist, and George have developed an original business. “It’s significantly better than our first plan – which was solely a physio clinic,” he says after he gives me a tour of the Carter & George practice.“We offer the care I get as a professional sportsman to the general public. It’s a one-stop shop for all your needs in terms of physiotherapy and well-being. We have an osteopath on site and offer shockwave treatment, a cryotherapy chamber and a gym – just like in elite sport. Professional sport is way ahead of the high street clinics and we want to bridge that gap at affordable prices. It’s hugely exciting and, by the time I retire, we’d like to have three or four clinics up and running.”
In more immediate terms, and before the World Cup, there is a small matter of the European Cup and Premiership title. “We could do both,” George says. “This certainly parallels the 2016 double and there was a knock-on effect in terms of England’s success that year. We’re in the European final and we’ve got a home semi-final in the Premiership. It’s a brilliant position.”