Jones gambles on Vunipola No8 plays in final friendly
Borthwick says No 8 will benefit from facing Italy Marler admits the pain of 2015 will never be healed
England believe the decision to hand Billy Vunipola his fourth successive start of their World Cup warm-up series is worth the risk as it is bringing the best out of the Saracens forward.
Vunipola was yesterday named at No8 for tomorrow’s final match against Italy in Newcastle before the 31-man squad travel to Japan two days later. The 26-year-old will be the only player to have started all four warm-up matches and, given his injury history, including breaking an arm three times last year, the decision to start him again so close to departure is not without risk.
Vunipola, along with his brother, Mako, who is recovering from a hamstring injury, is one of the key sources of England’s ball-carrying momentum and the pair’s fitness is vital to the side’s World Cup hopes.
Steve Borthwick, England’s forwards coach, said that Vunipola was relishing the opportunity to start again. “Billy absolutely wants to play,” Borthwick said. “He’s a player who thrives on playing – that is how you get the best out of him. He doesn’t want to miss any game. Look at the back row – we have had some knocks and bruises. It is about what is right for each player.”
Owen Farrell, who starts at flyhalf for the first time this summer, endorsed Borthwick’s view of Vunipola, who will start in a newlook back row with Mark Wilson at openside and Tom Curry on the blind side.
“Billy has been playing well and is trying to keep it going. He enjoys getting the ball in his hands,” Farrell said. “It’s important for him to be playing in the big games in which we have been involved over the past four weeks. He has got a big smile on his face because of it.”
Farrell, who is also so pivotal to England’s hopes of success, dismissed any notion that he should also have been rested. “Not at all. I am excited to get back out there and I am looking forward to what will be a tough test,” said Farrell, who plays outside Ben Youngs for the first time since the Six Nations. “The way the squad has been building is brilliant and the exciting thing is the responsibility of keeping that momentum going.”
Injury concerns have forced Eddie Jones’s hand in other areas, with Joe Marchant, the Harlequins centre, handed his first England start in the midfield despite not being part of the 31-man World Cup squad. Charlie Ewels and Matt Kvesic, who are also not in the squad, are named on the bench, which suggests that all three are next in line should injury replacements be required.
Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph were not considered for tomorrow’s match due to knee and leg injuries respectively, with Piers Francis returning to the side. Borthwick said there was no doubt about Slade’s or Joseph’s participation in the World Cup.
‘Billy wants to play. He’s someone who thrives on playing – that is how you get the best out of him’
England’s first match against Tonga is on Sept 22 and Borthwick said: “Henry is doing really well. He was running yesterday. It’s just a case of that next stage; that last stage. He’s not quite ready for this game but he’s close. Jonathan is also close. He’ll be in full training tomorrow. A muscle in his leg has needed some load management.”
As expected, Jones has named a back three oozing pace. Anthony Watson starts at full-back in place of Elliot Daly and Ruaridh Mcconnochie makes his debut on the right wing, with Jonny May on the left wing. Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes are the lock pairing, while Dan Cole starts alongside Jamie George and Joe Marler in the front row.
Marler, who is likely to spend some game time at tighthead tomorrow, said he was loving being back in the squad after reversing his decision to retire from international rugby last year. Yet he admitted that whatever England achieve over the next two months, it would not ease the pain of the 2015 failure.
“If I’d not come back, 2015 would still be the same,” Marler said. “I’d feel the same about 2015 irrelevant of what happens at this World Cup. It’s completely different – 2015 was an experience. It was c---. That’s the mildest I think I’ve ever put it, but it happened. I’ll always have that.
“If we win this World Cup it won’t then be like I can forget about 2015, because that will still have happened. So it’s not for me to go I need to right some wrongs. Those memories help in terms of experience talking to the other boys, but it’s also a hard one to relate to Japan because a home World Cup is just completely unique and I don’t think it will be anything like this.”
In the thick of it: Billy Vunipola will start his fourth pre-world Cup fixture