Billy Vunipola has been ruled out of England's autumn internationals and faces a race to be fit for the Six Nations after breaking his other arm to the one that he has fractured twice this year, continuing his disastrous run of luck over the last 18 months.
The Saracens No 8 broke his right arm in January and again during the summer tour of South Africa, with the second fracture requiring surgery and keeping him sidelined for the start of this season.
Having shown early signs of getting back to his imposing best in recent outings, the 25-year-old was forced off in the 52nd minute of Sunday’s 13-3 European Champions Cup victory over Glasgow, and Saracens have confirmed that he will miss another three months of action, ruling him out of all four autumn internationals and the rest of 2018.
The news is not only desperately sad for Vunipola, who has suffered long-term injuries to his shoulder, knee and now both arms over the last year and a half, but also England head coach Eddie Jones, who has been unable to call on Vunipola for large periods of his reign in charge.
After injuring his knee in September 2017 – having already missed the British and Irish Lions tour due to shoulder surgery – Vunipola returned from an operation in January 2018 only to last two games before he fractured his right arm against the Ospreys in the Champions Cup. Conscious that his season could be ended by the blow – and any hopes of featuring in the play-offs for Saracens or England’s tour of South Africa – Vunipola rushed himself back to help Saracens to Premiership glory in May, before heading on tour to face the Springboks and re-fracturing the bone in the second Test that resulted in off-season surgery once again.
It leaves Jones short on experienced No 8s to select for the four autumn internationals against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia as Exeter Chiefs’ Sam Simmonds is already absent through injury, while Wasps’ Nathan Hughes is facing a lengthy ban when his disciplinary hearing resumes on Wednesday.
In his absence, Zach Mercer could be in line to win his first Test cap against the Springboks after being included in the recent England training camp. The Bath back-row made his one and only England senior appearance in the defeat against the Barbarians last May, but appears to be ahead of the likes of Gloucester’s Ben Morgan, who has not featured with England since Jones took charge in 2016.
The bad news for England did not stop with Billy Vunipola, with elder brother Mako Vunipola suffering a calf strain that saw him leave Allianz Park on crutches with his left foot in a protective boot. Saracens will monitor the loosehead prop in the coming days before determining how long any lay-off will be, but the diagnosis is at least better than first feared.
With Joe Marler retiring from international duty and the likes of Ellis Genge and Beno Obano on the long-term injury list, England are already short on reserves at loosehead without Vunipola being crocked, and Jones will hope to receive some good news from the club ahead of Thursday’s squad announcement for the autumn internationals.
Saracens also confirmed that Nick Isiekwe suffered an ankle sprain in the win at Scotsoun and will also be monitored, while both Maro Itoke and Jamie George suffered broken noses but are not feared to be facing long spells out. Owen Farrell’s knock to his knee is not thought to be serious either.
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