Billy Vunipola given game time with Saracens before England’s Six Nations opener

Duncan Bech, PA
·3-min read

Billy Vunipola is set to be the only member of Saracens’ England contingent who will play before the Six Nations opener against Scotland on February 6.

Vunipola starts Saturday’s Trailfinders Challenge Cup opener against Ealing at number eight but all of his colleagues from Eddie Jones’ squad are missing from the 23 and are unlikely to participate against Doncaster next weekend either.

It means Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola will not have played since the final of the Autumn Nations Cup two months earlier when France were defeated in sudden death.

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall insists they have been held back from competitive action, including the club’s first match since being relegated from the Gallagher Premiership, to put them in the best possible shape for the Calcutta Cup showdown at Twickenham.

“The England internationals are on individualised pre-season programmes to help prepare them for the Six Nations,” McCall said.

“It’s so that they hit the ground running when it comes to the Scotland match. I don’t think there’s a great need for most of them to play games.

“What was central to their year was a quieter club season. They need to freshen up mentally and physically and that’s definitely going to happen with them.

Billy Vunipola (left) remains a key part of Eddie Jones' England team
Billy Vunipola, left, remains a key part of Eddie Jones’ England team (David Davies/PA)

“This is the one unique year for them and they’re in a completely different position to everyone else.

“After the Autumn Nations Cup, everyone else went on to play the European games and they had three weeks off.

“Now they’re doing a mini pre-season of sorts, which is very unusual for them. They are usually so phenomenally busy. This is a great opportunity for them to freshen up physically and mentally.

“The last two weeks they have dripped into our rugby training and there are obviously massive benefits for us when they are there in terms of the standards they set and the help they give to the younger players.”

Owen Farrell will lead England into the Six Nations having not played for two months
Owen Farrell will lead England into the Six Nations having not played for two months (Adam Davy/PA)

Whether Vunipola appears in Saracens’ second Trailfinders Challenge Cup game, at Doncaster next Saturday, has yet to be decided.

“Billy’s a little bit different. He always has been. In his case, we all agreed that he’s better with game time. He gets a lot out of playing, so that is why he’s playing,” McCall said.

“We will see how he goes this weekend and make a decision with him. We won’t force him to play.

“All these decisions are made with the player and Billy was really, really keen to play. He likes to play.

“He really likes rugby, feels he really benefits from playing and he wants to hit the ground running against Scotland. We will talk to him after this weekend and see what he wants to do.”

When available, Vunipola has been an automatic selection by Jones due to the England head coach’s belief that regular rugby brings out the best in him.

The 28-year-old Lions contender started all five of England’s matches last autumn having recovered from the latest in a series of broken arms.

Saturday’s clash in west London will be the weekend’s only game involving English clubs because of the two-week break created by the cancellation of the final rounds of European group action because of coronavirus safety fears.

Saracens were relegated from the Premiership as punishment for repeated salary cap breaches and launch their campaign for an immediate return to the top flight on March 6.