Rugby World Cup 2019: Why England aren’t worried about Mako Vunipola – yet

England leave for Japan on Sunday with one of their key players injured - but the new fixture schedule means that might not be as bad as it might sound

Jack de Menezes
St James' Park
Saturday 07 September 2019 09:09
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Rugby World Cup 2019: All you need to know

How worried should England be about Mako Vunipola? Right now, not very, even if the loosehead prop misses both of their Rugby World Cup pool games against Tonga and the United States.

That may sound like a strange statement to make regarding one of the most important players in the England squad, but it is a reflection of the unusual position that Eddie Jones’ squad find themselves in. On Sunday they leave the United Kingdom to head for Japan to continue what is essentially another pre-season programme.

For the first time since taking the job, Jones has got his hands on the team for more than two months. The results are more than noticeable, with a leaner, fitter and more united squad putting together a very promising run of results ahead of the World Cup.

Yet when England arrive in Tokyo on Monday – before heading for their planned hot-weather training camp the following day – they will do so in the knowledge that their first crunch game remains a month away.

England begin their campaign against the two weakest sides in the pool in Tonga and the USA, and even though they matches will prove a unique test that England haven’t faced before, they will be expected to emerge from the opening fixtures unscathed. England have never played two World Cup games inside four days, but while the new fixture schedule enforced by World Rugby that is supposed to bring the tier one and tier two nations an itinerary that reflects a more fair and balanced structure, it means that England have to prepare for their games with one eye on the 5 October clash against Argentina.

The immediate turnaround between the Tonga and USA games means that two different squads are almost certain to be used by Jones, with the Australian only set to deploy something close to his full-strength XV for the Pumas match nine days after the USA encounter. With that in mind, there is no need to risk Vunipola – or indeed Jack Nowell who remains sidelined from a long-term ankle injury yet remains in the World Cup picture – and it would be interesting to see whether they would both be unavailable had either Argentina or France been up first.

What would be a real concern is if Vunipola doesn’t make any of the pool games. While Jones ruled the Saracens prop out of the opening two fixtures, he didn’t confirm that he will definitely be back for the latter two.

“Mako definitely won’t be ready, but we feel that he’ll be right possibly for game three or game four of the pool stage,” Jones said. “Jack Nowell the last couple of days has taken off so I’ve had to hold him back a bit. He should be right similar to Mako, and then everyone else is in full training.”

In Joe Marler and Ellis Genge, Jones has two very strong back-up options. But while both players look at home on the international stage, they would be the first to admit that they are not Mako Vunipola. The 28-year-old offers a handling game that rivals many of the backs in the England squad, a sturdy base in the scrum and a defensive work rate that embarrasses many a back-row forward, and the reality is that if England to win the World Cup for the first time in 16 years, they need Vunipola at his very best come the business end of the season. If that means wrapping him up in cotton wool to allow this troublesome hamstring to fully recover, then the attitude appears to be so be it.

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