England are confident they can cope with the loss of Billy Vunipola if he is forced to miss any of their remaining World Cup matches with an ankle injury. He suffered a twisted ankle in Saturday’s victory over Argentina and England were on Monday still sweating over his fitness.
He has undergone a scan and while there is a degree of optimism in the camp, with the No 8 not required to wear a protective boot or use crutches, England were not due to learn the full extent of his injury until Tuesday. The 26-year-old suffered the injury in the first half of England’s 39-10 victory but played on until half-time with his left ankle heavily strapped. He was then replaced by Lewis Ludlam and was notable by his absence during the post-match celebrations on the pitch.
With qualification for the quarter-finals already secured, Eddie Jones is expected to make a number of changes to his side but Vunipola is the only player to start all 12 of England’s Tests this year. Jones dismissed the suggestion that he was taking a risk by not resting Vunipola for England’s second pool match against the USA given his recent injury history but will anxiously await the bulletin from his medical staff.
“He has had a scan and that is ongoing, and we will have a clearer picture tomorrow,” said the England assistant coach, Neal Hatley. “He has another 24 hours and then we will make a firm diagnosis.”
• Our latest minute-by-minute live reports
• Sign up to The Breakdown, our free rugby union email newsletter
Pool A: Ireland, Japan, Russia, Samoa, Scotland
Pool B: Canada, Italy, Namibia, New Zealand, South Africa
Pool C: Argentina, England, France, Tonga, USA
Pool D: Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay, Wales
If Vunipola is sidelined it leaves England light on experience in the back row. He is the only specialist No 8 in the 31-man squad and the other four loose forwards – Ludlam, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Mark Wilson – have a combined total of 49 caps, only one more than Vunipola alone. When Ludlam came on against the Pumas, Curry – who is still adjusting to his new role of blindside flanker – moved to No 8 while Wilson started there for three of England’s autumn internationals last year. Hatley revealed both have been training in the position as a contingency plan.
“We have done sessions where we have varied who plays at eight,” said Hatley. “We knew coming into the tournament how we would have to move people around so we have trained accordingly with the different back-rows in those positions.”
While England may lack experience in the back row they do have considerable depth in terms of ball-carriers with Mako Vunipola back to full fitness and Kyle Sinckler, Manu Tuilagi and Maro Itoje all fit and available.
“Eddie made us aware of it when Billy came off at half-time,” said the England hooker Jamie George. “He said there will be potentially be a little more responsibility for the other guys to step up and want the ball now. You work towards the ball all the time anyway. If [Billy] does or he doesn’t play then we’re all aware that we need to get our hands on the ball and impose ourselves physically.”
Meanwhile, Hatley delivered a more bullish update on Joe Marler, who was able to train on Monday despite a back problem. Marler has started all three of England’s matches to date so may well make way for Mako Vunipola against France.
“He has done training this morning and he has played a lot of rugby for us and it’s a position we have good strength in, and we will see how he pulls up to make sure we put out the strongest team possible,” said Hatley. “There is a little bit of referral in his back and we will see how he is tomorrow.”