CHRIS FOY: Billy Vunipola is out of England exile with heavyweight No 8 ready to make a major impact
Eddie Jones added heavyweight influence to the England squad to tour Australia by bringing Billy Vunipola out of exile on Monday – then claimed the number 8 could reach new heights after rediscovering his hunger.
The 29-year-old has not played for his country since the end of last year’s Six Nations, but his ‘exceptional’ performance in Saturday’s Premiership final against Leicester convinced Jones that he is ready for an international comeback during the tour next month.
With Alex Dombrandt joining Sam Simmonds for being banned from the three-match series Down Under, the younger Vunipola brother has an excellent chance to take on the Wallabies, as the only No. 8 specialist to play in the selection is selected.
Eddie Jones has backed Billy Vunipola to reach new heights after his England recall
Jones decided to give Vunipola another chance after rediscovering his hunger
At first, the England head coach joked about big Billy’s appetite, saying ‘I hope he’s not too hungry – he can gain weight!’ But then Jones offered a serious assessment of how the 61-cap forward had managed to regain the inner drive that had been lost for a while.
“When players have had a lot of success, some are constantly hungry for success and can’t live without it,” he said. “And there are those who lean back a bit.
“He probably leaned back a bit and sometimes it takes a reminder to make them sit a little more forward. He’s had that memory and we’re optimistic we’ll see the best of him in the Testarena.”
Saracens’ relegation from the Premiership in 2020 had a negative impact on Vunipola
Vunipola has a good chance of being the only Specialist No. 8 in the squad against Australia
Saracens’ relegation from the Premiership in 2020, as punishment for previous salary cap violations, had a negative impact on Billy Vunipola and all their large English contingent. Jones admitted it took him and the players a while to realize that.
The North London club were delighted to see the Anglo-Tongan giant’s thunderous form at the heart of their scrum, as they re-established themselves in the Premiership by finishing second and reaching the final.
Vunipola’s personal contribution to a lost case against Leicester struck a chord with Jones, who was present at Twickenham.
“The final was the culmination of some consistently good performances,” he said. “Moderate ball-carrying, good work speed in defense and when he carried, he did so with agility and power. He was not at his best in the last Six Nations he played with us; he was up and down a bit.
“I asked him to go away and do his best. Consistently for Saracens, he has been close to that. I thought he was exceptional in the (Premiership) final – he looked like a test No. 8. When he’s at his best, which we think he’s close to now, he’ll give you something different.”
Danny Care will compete for the England No 9 shirt in Australia in the absence of Ben Youngs
Danny Care could also give England something else as he was named in the squad to keep him on track for a first test appearance since 2018. According to Jones, Harlequins’ scrum half should be in his element Down Under.
“The game has opened up for a half-back like him,” he said. “Australian tracks are generally hard and fast, and the first game we play is on an AFL (Aussie Rules) track, so it’s for thoroughbreds. It suits Danny.
“If you were in your race form and it was muddy, you would say you don’t support it, but if it’s solid, get it. He plays his best on the ground, is in top form and I’ve never seen him in better physical condition.”
Care will compete for the number 9 shirt in the absence of Ben Youngs – Jones’ first-choice there for much of his tenure – who has been left out to give him a long break and good prep season, to give him the best chance to reach the World Cup next year. Other absentees are Joe Marler and Elliot Daly.
Jones described Saracens’ Owen Farrell as one of the most competitive players he’s coached
Under a slew of new names, there are ‘apprentice’ places for rookie London Irish backs Henry Arundell and Will Joseph. So could they earn Test Squad?
“We want to take it easy with those guys,” Jones said. “But if at some point during the tour one of those guys says, ‘You have to pick me’ (by impressing in training), we’ll consider it.”
At the other end of the experience scale, Owen Farrell is back after missing out on the Six Nations due to a second straight ankle injury. The presence of the Saracen playmaker will give England an extra layer of certainty.
“He’s one of the most competitive players I’ve ever coached,” Jones said. “He’s won 96 caps, the only trophy he hasn’t won is the World Cup – and he went as close as you can get without winning it. He has a pretty good track record.”
Whether that track record means Farrell will regain the captaincy is not yet clear. Jones will not reveal the identity of his skipper until he has named a team for the first Test in Perth on Thursday. It could be Courtney Lawes leading England to the series’ opener two days later.