Eddie Jones added heavyweight clout to England’s squad to tour Australia by bringing Billy Vunipola out of exile on Monday — and then claimed the No 8 can reach a new peak after rediscovering his hunger.
The 29-year-old hasn’t played for his country since the end of last year’s Six Nations, but his ‘exceptional’ performance in the Premiership final against Leicester on Saturday convinced Jones he is ready for an international comeback on next month’s tour.
With Alex Dombrandt joining Sam Simmonds in being ruled out of the three-match series Down Under, the younger Vunipola brother has a prime opportunity to line up against the Wallabies, as the only specialist No 8 selected in the squad.
Eddie Jones has backed Billy Vunipola to reach a new peak following his England recall
Jones decided to give Vunipola another opportunity after he rediscovered his hunger
At first, England’s head coach joked about big Billy’s appetite, saying: ‘I hope he’s not too hungry — he can put on weight!’ But then Jones offered a serious assessment of how the 61-cap forward had managed to regain the inner drive which had been lost for a while.
‘When players have had a lot of success, some are continually hungry for success and can’t live without it,’ he said. ‘Then there are some that sit back a little bit.
‘He probably sat back a little bit and sometimes it takes a reminder to get them to sit forward a bit more. He’s had that reminder and we’re optimistic we’ll see the best of him in the Test arena.’
Saracens’ relegation from the Premiership in 2020 had a negative impact on Vunipola
Vunipola has a good chance to line up against Australia as the only specialist No 8 in the squad
Saracens’ relegation from the Premiership in 2020, as punishment for past salary-cap offences, had a negative impact on Billy Vunipola and all of their large England contingent. Jones admitted it took him and the players a while to realise that.
The north London club have been delighted with the thunderous form of the Anglo-Tongan giant at the base of their scrum, during a season when they re-established themselves in the Premiership by finishing second and reaching the final.
Vunipola’s personal contribution in a losing cause against Leicester struck a chord with Jones, in attendance at Twickenham.
‘The final was the culmination of some consistently good performances,’ he said. ‘Massive ball-carrying, good work-rate in defence and, when he carried, he did it with dexterity and power. He wasn’t at his best the last Six Nations he played with us; he was a bit up and down.
‘I asked him to go away and find his best. Consistently for Saracens he has been close to that. I thought in the (Premiership) final he was exceptional — he looked like a Test No 8. When he’s at his best, which we think he is close to now, he gives you something a little bit different.’
Danny Care will challenge for the England No 9 shirt in Australia in the absence of Ben Youngs
Danny Care can give England something a bit different too, as he was named in the squad to leave him on course for a first Test appearance since 2018. According to Jones, the Harlequins scrum-half should be in his element Down Under.
‘The game has opened itself up to a half-back like him,’ he said. ‘Australian tracks are typically hard and fast, and the first game we play is on an AFL (Aussie Rules) track, so it’s for thoroughbreds. It suits Danny.
‘If you had your race form out and it was muddy, you’d say don’t back him, but if it’s firm get on him. He plays his best on top of the ground, is in great form and I’ve never seen him in better physical nick.’
Care will challenge for the No 9 shirt in the absence of Ben Youngs — Jones’s first choice there for so much of his tenure — who has been omitted in order to allow him a long break and proper pre-season, to give him the best shot at reaching the World Cup next year. Other absentees include Joe Marler and Elliot Daly.
Jones described Saracens’ Owen Farrell as one of the most competitive players he’s coached
Among a raft of new names, there are ‘apprentice’ places for rookie London Irish backs Henry Arundell and Will Joseph. So could they earn Test selection?
‘We want to take it slowly with those guys,’ said Jones. ‘But if at some stage on the tour, one of those guys says, “You’ve got to pick me” (by impressing in training), we’ll consider it.’
At the other end of the experience scale, Owen Farrell is back after missing the Six Nations due to a second successive ankle injury. The Saracens playmaker’s presence will give England an extra layer of assurance.
‘He’s one of the most competitive players I’ve ever coached,’ said Jones. ‘He’s won 96 caps, the only trophy he hasn’t won is the World Cup — and he went as close as you can get to that without winning it. He’s got a pretty good track record.’
Whether or not that track record means Farrell will regain the captaincy is not yet clear. Jones will not announce the identity of his skipper until naming a team a week on Thursday for the first Test in Perth. It may be Courtney Lawes who leads England out for the series opener two days later.
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