Steve Borthwick hails the Vunipola diligence as brothers return to hand England a Six Nations boost

Eddie Jones is poised to throw Billy Vunipola straight back into the England line-up after proving his fitness in his recovery from a long-term knee injury

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The return of the Vunipola brothers has defied everything that medical science has proven in rugby’s 146-year history, since the very first international between England and Scotland. This weekend, the two oldest rugby-playing nations renew their rivalry at Twickenham with the Calcutta Cup, Triple Crown and, potentially, the Six Nations title.

At the start of the year, it looked as though both Saracens forwards would miss the entire Six Nations championship, robbing England head coach Eddie Jones of two key players that helped the side to last year’s Six Nations Grand Slam. Three matches into this year’s tournament, England are still unbeaten and they have not one but two Vunipolas back in the ranks, with No 8 Billy poised to return straight to the starting line-up on Saturday.

His older brother, Mako, looks set to be among the replacements if the team accidentally leaked during Tuesday’s training session is anything to go by, but it has been a remarkable recovery from individual knee injuries that is testament to their commitment to rehabilitation, England’s medical staff and also the Vunipola genes.

The England forwards coach, Steve Borthwick, addressed their returns when speaking on Wednesday, having seen Mako come off the bench in the hard-fought and hard-thought win over Italy two weeks ago and Billy make his comeback for Saracens last Sunday, and he explained that it’s never an easy path to get back to fitness in a sport as physical as rugby. That path, it turns out, can sometimes be more slippery than it seems.

“It's always a team approach but the player has to be 100 per cent diligent,” Borthwick said at England’s training base at Pennyhill Park. “I think I had 12 surgeries in my career by the time I retired. Each time you come back you have to be diligent in everything you do.

“I remember being on crutches once. I lived about 200 metres from [Bath’s stadium] the Rec and even getting down there was awkward. Once I was walking along beside the river when my crutch slipped on some leaves. I was thinking: 'How do I even get to the physio?' You just have to be so diligent.”

The return of a 2016 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee will be welcomed by any side, so Billy Vunipola’s international comeback, should it be confirmed when Jones announces his side on Thursday morning for the Calcutta Cup clash will give England an early mental boost ahead of the renewal of the Auld Enemy rivalry.

Like another of that World Rugby shortlist in Owen Farrell, Borthwick helped nurture Vunipola during his time as captain at Saracens, the club who signed both of the brothers early in their careers, Billy from Wasps and Mako from Bristol.

Casting his mind back to when Billy first appeared on his radar, he remembered his breakthrough at Wasps six years ago, when he made an immediate impression on the then-recently replaced England captain.

I remember seeing him as an 18-year-old for Wasps when he made his debut,” Borthwick said of the now 24-year-old. “Tremendous player. Same with his brother when he first arrived at Saracens. They've got incredible talent, they're humble and want to work exceptionally hard.”

Having already beaten France and Italy at Twickenham and, more impressively, Wales in Cardiff, England still face their two toughest matches of the Six Nations. Scotland have delivered on their label of being this year’s dark horse, while the trip to Dublin will prove one of Jones’s toughest tests of his England reign in a possible attempt to secure the Grand Slam against Ireland. Having both Vunipolas in the ranks suddenly make that second consecutive whitewash that little bit closer.

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