Mako Vunipola has declared himself fit and ready to go with England’s options at prop given a much-needed boost before Saturday’s visit of Italy.
Rehabilitation on an Achilles injury saw the 30-year-old miss last weekend’s shock 11-6 defeat at home to Scotland in the Guinness Six Nations opener, and tighthead Kyle Sinckler will also be back after he sat out the reverse due to suspension.
With Joe Marler also not available for this year’s tournament, Eddie Jones started Ellis Genge and Will Stuart at prop and called upon the previously uncapped Beno Obano from the bench at Twickenham, but the returning wealth of experience will provide a welcome lift.
Vunipola said: “I have been training with the staff here but with Saracens before that and I am happy with how I have recovered. The Achilles is good to go.
“I trained fully by the end of last week and in terms of match fitness still obviously a bit to get there, but I feel fit and ready to go out there if called upon.”
An inquest into England’s first defeat to Scotland at Twickenham in 38 years started straight after the full-time whistle.
Several of Vunipola’s Saracens team-mates were selected in the XV despite not playing any club rugby between the Autumn Nations Cup Final against France on December 6 and the Six Nations opener two months later.
But he added: “In terms of match rustiness, you will always have that in the first game, but it is a case of those boys at the weekend know their role and know how to get themselves into the right place to play. I feel like they did that, I don’t think that is much of an issue really.”
The resounding judgement following Saturday’s ultimately historic clash was Scotland were the better team and Vunipola, who watched from the stands, agreed: “We didn’t perform anywhere near where we need to be.”
Brother Billy was sin-binned during the first half and took responsibility for the result post match, but will not get any special treatment from his sibling.
Quizzed on what the younger Vunipola may need this week, the loosehead prop replied: “Probably more arm on the shoulder here and there. I guess his wife is there to do that for him and my job is to give him a little prod.”
Described as the “elder statesman” by head coach Jones, the 63-capped forward insisted he would lead by example in the build up to the Italy match.
Over the Achilles issue which flared up in the win over Wales in November, Vunipola is ready to help the pack get back to their usual dominance.
“I have always looked like the elder statesman in the squad anyway,” he joked. “But the age profile of the team is a lot younger than where it was when I first came into the team.
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“Naturally the more experience you get, you take it and understand what is expected of you as a player and what you need individually to get right.
“The only way you can respond is by playing better, but we have spoken about the weekend and addressed what we needed to. I think for us the key for us is how we bounce back.
“In terms of preparation for this week, we made a point that we can’t be hung up on it too much. You can’t get too low when you lose and you can’t get too high when you win.
“We have spoke about how a big performance is not that far away, not miles away. There are obviously things we need to improve but for us as a pack of forwards we are very lucky we have an opportunity this weekend against a good Italian side.
“It is all about getting our stuff right and hopefully the performance will take care of itself.”
Now aged 30, Vunipola’s importance to England remains as high as ever and assistant coach Matt Proudfoot backed him to galvanise his team-mates as Jones’ side look to get their title defence back on track.
“I am really confident he is fully match fit to be able to lead the pack in intensity if selected,” the 49-year-old, who recovered from coronavirus recently, said.
“He has such a vast skill set. It is not just he is a dominant prop, he is a dominant player.
“Particularly at set-piece time, he brings an intensity which galvanises the rest of the team and he is prepared to lead from the front which ties the pack together and that is really important.”