Billy Vunipola injury leaves England anxious for World Cup knockout stages

Gerard Meagher at Tokyo Stadium
The Guardian

England have been handed a major World Cup scare with Billy Vunipola suffering a twisted ankle in victory over Argentina. England booked their place in the quarter-finals after Tomás Lavanini was sent off for a shoulder to Owen Farrell’s head in the first half. But Eddie Jones is sweating on the fitness of Vunipola, who did not return to the field after half-time and will be assessed on Sunday.

Vunipola was starting his 12th consecutive match for England and his seventh in two months, having been named at No 8 in the three World Cup matches and the four warm-up games.

Jones bristled at suggestions before England’s victory over the USA last week that he was taking a risk by not resting Vunipola but he now faces an anxious wait over the Saracens forward.

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“We’ll have a look at in the morning and see what it’s like,” said Jones. “He’s twisted his ankle but we don’t think it’s too serious.”

Vunipola appeared to suffer the injury to his left ankle during the first half. He received attention from the England medical staff and played on until half-time with his ankle heavily strapped. He did not re-emerge, however, and was conspicuous by his absence after full-time when the rest of the squad were conducting their celebrations on the pitch.

If Jones were to lose Vunipola it would be a hammer blow to his side’s World Cup chances. There is no like-for-like replacement within the squad – he was replaced by Lewis Ludlam, who is a flanker by trade – while Mark Wilson is the only other member of the squad with any genuine experience of playing internationally at No 8.

Just two days ago Jones said: “Billy is great for us because he has got that fire and temperament and you want that from your No 8. You look at the history of the World Cups and they’ve always been won by a big No 8.”

Farrell, meanwhile, was adamant that there are no concerns over his health after receiving a second blow to the head in the space of 10 days. Farrell was clobbered in the head by the USA’s John Quill – who received the first red card of the World Cup as a result – and he was on the receiving end again in the 18th minute against the Pumas.

In the first half Farrell missed four consecutive kicks at goal – three of which came after his blow to the head – but the England captain insisted he did not need to go off the field for a head injury assessment. Against the USA, he did not leave the field either.

“I feel fine,” he said. “It’s obviously concussion that’s the worry but I didn’t get hit anywhere near the top of the head. Maybe your jaw gets a bit sore but I was fine and there was no need for a HIA.”

Lavanini’s red card in effect ended the match as a contest and Argentina are now resigned to exiting the World Cup in the pool stages.

Their head coach, Mario Ledesma, acknowledged that Nigel Owens’s decision to issue Lavanini, who joins Leicester next season, a red card was fair, but did suggest that Manu Tuilagi was fortunate to avoid a yellow card for tackling Emiliano Boffelli in the air.

The Argentina and Saracens prop Juan Figallo agreed. “We thought Manu’s tackle was a yellow card,” he said. “That could have helped us because it was early in the game but it was the ref’s decision and I won’t say anything about referees.”

Jones also revealed he is highly unlikely to travel back to Australia to attend the funeral of his friend and former Randwick club mentor Jeff Sayle before England’s final Pool C match against France on Saturday.

“Unless the RFU hire a Concorde for me, it’ll be quite difficult to go,” he said. “I’d like to go but I’ve got a lot of responsibility here. I’m conscious of that. The travel makes it difficult so I doubt very much that I’ll be going, as much as I’d like to.”

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