Billy Vunipola received an emphatic endorsement on Wednesday, at a time when England’s vast array of Test-class back-rowers means their acclaimed World Cup trio find themselves under pressure.
The giant Saracens No 8 has not been at his dominant best since the season resumption, just as a host of contenders have been jostling to claim a place in Eddie Jones’ pack.
The younger Vunipola brother and the head coach’s ‘Kamikaze Kids’ — Tom Curry and Sam Underhill — are the established combination at the back of the scrum. But double player of the year Jack Willis, Ben Earl, Alex Dombrandt, Ted Hill and Lewis Ludlam are all pushing for promotion.
Billy Vunipola (above) has not been at his dominant best since the season resumption
While big Billy is a renowned talisman for Jones’ England, the 27-year-old missed the main part of the Six Nations earlier this year due to injury. In his absence, Curry rapidly adapted to the task of deputising at No 8. The Sale flanker’s versatility means there could be a temptation to unleash three mobile poachers together in the championship finale against Italy in Rome on Saturday.
However, there is also a need for gainline-busting clout — especially without Manu Tuilagi in midfield. Forwards and defence coach John Mitchell acts as a mentor for the back-rowers and said: ‘Billy has a huge capacity for work. He regularly plays 80 minutes in Tests.
Vunipola was replaced by Tom Curry (above) in Eddie Jones’ England squad following his injury
However, the Saracens No 8 is still regarded as one of the best back row players Jones has
‘It is phenomenal how he is able to keep pushing on to the ball and contribute in the way that he does. It’s a unique quality that he has. Never judge a book by its cover — it’s what’s inside. He’s highly motivated. He has proven that.
‘It comes down to creating the right combination and mix. Clearly the opposition have strengths as well, so you want to deny them access into the game. It is getting that mix right — having that ability to carry, the ability to create contests in breakdown, having the ability to distribute.
‘You have two guys who are generally hunting the ball defensively and you have one who has to be a bit more patient. Then you have a third lineout jumper. You have to get all those things covered.’
Vunipola started every match for England in the World Cup last year as they surged into the final before losing to South Africa. He has considerable credit in the bank. When he is fit, he tends to start. England will also be mindful of the need to eclipse the ball- carrying threat posed by Italy’s Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri.
Willis has burst to prominence lately with his breakdown exploits and all-round class for Wasps, but England’s coaches are determined to carefully assess him in their own environment.
Vunipola started every match for England in the World Cup last year when they made the final
While Curry was shortlisted for the World Rugby Player of the Year award after the World Cup
‘Jack has been in the camp three days,’ said Mitchell. ‘He’s a really good character who asks really good questions and is extremely flexible in the way he goes about his poaching. That’s a big strength of his but clearly there are other aspects that are pretty good in his game as well.
‘He will create good competition with the others that excel in that area as well, but Test rugby is different to club rugby. There are higher demands. To me, it’s about adapting to Test rugby. Certain players have that capacity and skill-set and other players may take a lot longer.’
Curry’s place in the starting XV is assured. He was shortlisted for the World Rugby Player of the Year award after the World Cup and his form has not dipped since.
Mitchell described him as being ‘in good nick’ and added: ‘I can’t wait to see him play.’
For his part, Curry can’t wait to play again after an agonising end to his club season, as Sale were denied a title shot after a Covid outbreak which saw them register 27 positive tests among players and staff.
Reflecting on the grim episode, the 22-year-old said: ‘For me, once something is out of your control, what can you do about it? It happened, park it and move on. The England stuff was something for me to look forward to.
England will have to manage Italy’s Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri’s carrying threat
‘I always tested negative throughout the whole thing. Have they got to the bottom of it? I don’t know. There is an investigation but it’s nothing to do with me. I’ll wait for whatever they say.’
Curry acknowledged that the shattering experience with Sale —followed by the cancellation of last Sunday’s clash with the Barbarians due to Covid protocol breaches within the opposition squad — reinforced the need to stick to the guidelines.
‘As players and as a team we have a responsibility not just to represent ourselves and our country extremely well, but also the game of rugby,’ he said.
‘It’s a big honour and responsibility and one we take very seriously.
‘We have to make sure we are doing the right things — staying in, being respectful of the bubble, social distancing, hand sanitising and all this stuff.’