England v France: Vunipola sheds pounds to prove his appetite for World Cup fray

Slimmed-down forward says he has cut out the pizzas and curries to be at his peak ahead of tricky test in Paris tonight

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The Independent Online

Twenty-six personnel changes in the space of seven days? Anyone would think there’s a World Cup just around the corner. Both England and France have a long and inglorious history of chopping and changing and throwing babies out with the bath water, but there is a clear method to the madness this close to a global tournament and it gives tonight’s 101st episode of  “Le Crunch” in Paris a fascination all of its own.

Stuart Lancaster, the red-rose coach, has retained only one player, the express-paced Gloucester wing Jonny May, from the starting line-up responsible for last weekend’s 19-14 victory over Les Bleus at Twickenham, while the  Tricolore boss, Philippe Saint-André, is giving three men – the full-back Scott Spedding, the lock Yoann Maestri and the No 8 Louis Picamoles – a second run. But as all four of those asked to turn out again are certain to be involved when life gets serious in a  little under a month’s time, the focus is elsewhere.

Lancaster will be taking a close interest in the performance of the Northampton midfielder Luther Burrell, not least because the Exeter youngster Henry Slade played such a blinder in helping create three England tries in the opening match. Yet in truth, Burrell is one half-decent effort away from joining Brad Barritt, Jonathan Joseph and Sam Burgess – yes, honestly – in the centre contingent for the main event.

The real fun and games will be up front. England’s tight forwards were all over the shop at close quarters against a powerful French unit at Twickenham – not only did they engage reverse gear at the scrum, they allowed their line-out to disappear up its own fundament – and there will be a good deal of concern if the stronger combination selected for this game struggles in similar fashion.

There may even be a sense of panic if Billy Vunipola has a quiet one against Picamoles, whose performance in London suggested he might reach the World Cup in optimum nick after an alarming drop-off in form and fitness. The Frenchman’s opponent a week ago was Ben Morgan, another victim of orthopaedic hassle, and while the West Countryman came through a 40-minute comeback without any obvious ill effects, he was miles short of match fitness. England need Vunipola, their naturalised Tongan back-rower, at the very top of his game.

Happily from the red-rose perspective, he should be even sharper than he was during the Six Nations, when he finally proved to Lancaster and the rest of the coaching team that he could play Test rugby at full tilt for the duration of a game, rather than selected parts of it. Vunipola has shed well over a stone in weight over the course of the World Cup training camp – hardly a life-threatening loss, given that he has always been the size of a house, but significant all the same – and feels fitter and faster as a result.

“I was 138kg [nearly 22 stone] and told the strength and conditioning guys that I wanted to get down to 130kg,” he said. “There’s no hiding place for anyone this year and I think this will allow me to be more involved in games, to push myself as much as possible. We’ll see in Paris whether it’s helped.”

All this has not been achieved without sacrifice, most notably on the food consumption front. “There is always temptation,” he confessed. “I’ve never been one to close down my options. If I see someone eating pizza and it looks nice, I’ll probably have a pizza. If we’re watching a movie and someone’s eating a curry, I’ll have a curry. But I’ve learnt quite a few lessons and I know now that you have to wait until after a big game. You can’t have three or four days of bingeing and eating badly, because it builds up.

“I never used to think that bread was bad for you. Or pasta. Or jelly babies. I thought they gave you energy. Now I understand I have to eat salad and vegetables. If you go to a Tongan meal, the nearest thing to salad on the table are the flowers for decoration. So if I go over to see Mum and Dad, I make sure it’s between lunch and dinner, when no one is cooking. I try to keep it safe.”

It is a sure sign of the chronic lack of momentum in French rugby that England travel as marginal favourites, but Saint-André’s side could easily have won at Twickenham and will field a far stronger back line on this occasion. Yoann Huget, Noa Nakaitaci, Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana are infinitely more dangerous than anything seen a week ago, so unless the visitors exert some control at the sharp end, they will struggle to emerge in one piece.

For Jamie George, the Saracens hooker scheduled to make a debut off the bench, it is a very big night indeed. A strong set-piece showing against the excellent Catalan front-rower Guilhem Guirado and a couple of “double tops” at the line-out will surely earn him a World Cup place, which would be no more than he deserves after his high-calibre campaign at club level  last term.

As for Lancaster’s remaining issues at the margins, the decisions have all but been made. Events in the City of Light may yet cast a shadow over the coach’s thinking, however, and there is always the chance that a nasty injury or an unexpectedly heavy defeat will leave him lost in the darkness.