Ed­die has to plan for life with­out Big Billy

The Rugby Paper - - Internationals - NICK CAIN

IT is no sur­prise that Eng­land’s five Test crash, and some of the close-call wins that pre­ceded it, have co­in­cided with Billy Vu­nipola’s run of in­juries since Ed­die Jones’ and his team white­washed Aus­tralia two sum­mers ago.

On that tour the heavy-duty Sara­cens No.8 was world class, cap­ping a se­ries in which he was the dom­i­nant for­ward on the pitch with an un­stop­pable No.8 pick-and-go try on the blind­side in the last min­utes of the fi­nal Test against the Wal­la­bies.

It was hoped that Big Billy would get into his stride prop­erly af­ter re­turn­ing to ac­tion in April af­ter four months on the side­lines with a bro­ken right fore­arm. In­stead, af­ter his bid to re­gain full match fit­ness in the build-up to the tour of South Africa was in­ter­rupted by a ham­string tweak from kick­ing an Aussie Rules ball, he even­tu­ally came back as Eng­land’s start­ing No.8 in Johannesburg.

Af­ter mak­ing a few in­roads against the Spring­boks in Bloem­fontein the in­jury curse struck again when he was re­placed just be­fore half-time af­ter re­frac­tur­ing the same fore­arm. Vu­nipola had been given a pro­tec­tive foam cas­ing to pro­tect the in­jury, but he ad­mit­ted he had dis­carded it be­cause it car­ried the psy­cho­log­i­cal con­no­ta­tion he was still not fit to play.

That’s easy to un­der­stand, and it’s also un­likely the foam would have given the arm the nec­es­sary pro­tec­tion it re­quired in any case. How­ever, an­other few months on the side­lines is a bit­ter blow to the No.8, and also to Eng­land’s 2019 World Cup plans.

One of the at­ten­dant is­sues fac­ing Ed­die Jones around a po­si­tion that is such a tac­ti­cal ful­crum is that Vu­nipola’s un­der­study, Nathan Hughes, is also in­jury-prone. The Wasps No.8 was out of ac­tion for a good part of the sea­son, and when he was picked by Jones for the Six Na­tions loss to Scot­land he was clearly not match-fit, and soon sus­tained an­other in­jury.

This time last year when Billy Vu­nipola had to with­draw from the Li­ons tour due to a shoul­der in­jury I said in this col­umn that the Li­ons had to get over los­ing such a tal­is­man in dou­ble quick time, and look at the pos­i­tives rather than be­ing de­featist.

The re­al­ity is that key play­ers are al­ways be­ing in­jured, and there is rarely a good time for it to hap­pen. Just as War­ren Gat­land got on with get­ting the best out of Taulupe Fale­tau at No.8 for the Li­ons, so Jones must do with Eng­land.

Of course, a fully fit Billy Vu­nipola will be a huge bonus for Eng­land’s World Cup cam­paign, but given the fre­quency with which he has been in­jured in the last two years there is no way that Jones can count on him be­ing in mint con­di­tion. Fur­ther­more, Hughes is in sim­i­lar ter­ri­tory.

That means Jones has to re­shape his back row so that he has a full-speed con­tin­gency in place to win the World Cup with­out them. My be­lief is that he has the play­ers to do it, but he must get crack­ing – al­though on the South Africa tour it has been dif­fi­cult to de­tect a strat­egy.

If Eng­land are go­ing to have a rel­a­tively small open­side they can­not af­ford a small No.8 like Sam Sim­monds, mainly be­cause the front five is not pow­er­ful enough to af­ford him. That’s why Sim­monds should be com­pet­ing with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill at open­side – and I would throw an­other into the mix in Guy Thomp­son, who has joined Le­ices­ter from Wasps.

It also re­quires Eng­land to have big, pow­er­ful men at No.8 and blind­side. Brad Shields is a handy op­tion in both po­si­tions hav­ing played there for the Hur­ri­canes, and the same ap­plies to Don Ar­mand who has played across the back row for Ex­eter and is one of the best line-out for­wards in the Premier­ship.

There are three other op­tions. Sara­cens blind­side Michael Rhodes has just be­come res­i­dency qual­i­fied and has said he wants to opt for Eng­land.

Ex­eter’s Dave Ew­ers is a tank of a blind­side and should come into the reck­on­ing if he finds his feet af­ter in­jury, and New­cas­tle’s Mark Wil­son is a gritty, con­sis­tent op­er­a­tor who can play 6 or 8.

Jones needs more phys­i­cal clout in his back row, and he has some sift­ing to do, but he can­not say he has no op­tions should Big Billy be un­avail­able.

PICTURE: Getty Images

In­jury prone: Billy Vu­nipola has spent months on side­line

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