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Why caution needed over Vunipola

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Why Billy Vunipola's return should come with a pinch of caution

Billy Vunipola is back in the Saracens squad for this weekend’s match against Bristol Bears, but he’s had so many returns from injury in the last 18 months it’s hard to get excited.

He missed England’s first three Six Nations games of 2017 because of a knee injury, making a sub appearance against Scotland and starting against Ireland. The number 8 then withdrew from the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand because of a shoulder injury, opting for surgery to fix a recurring problem rather than touring.

Last season was pretty much a washout. A knee injury at the end of September also required surgery and saw him miss out on the Autumn internationals. After an absence of almost four months he returned, but that lasted just two matches before he suffered a fractured forearm against the Ospreys in the Champions Cup in January, wiping him out for another four months, forcing him to miss the entire 2018 Natwest Six Nations, where he was sorely missed as England finished fifth.

The 25-year-old made an appearance off the bench against London Irish at the end of April, but the luckless Vunipola tweaked a hamstring in training after that. He finally made his first start since that Ospreys game during Saracens Premiership 57-33 semi-final win over Wasps, however only lasted a half, due to a recurrence of the hamstring problem. He did recover in time to help Saracens to their third domestic title in four years starting the final against Exeter.

That was enough for Eddie Jones to immediately hand Vunipola the number 8 jersey for the South Africa tour, the first Test in Johannesburg was just his second international start for England since the 2016 Autumn internationals. But injury was yet again around the corner, the second Test in Bloemfontein saw him re-fracture his arm, ending his tour.

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Vunipola is a key cog around England’s World Cup ambitions, summed by Springbok number 8 Duane Vermuelen ahead of the third June Test against England.

“He’s definitely England’s go-forward guy and without him, from what I saw in the Six Nations, they struggled. They need that guy. Billy is a big loss.” Vermeulen said.

When Jones picked Dylan Hartley as his captain, Billy Vunipola was one of three vice-captains selected, along with Mike Brown and Owen Farrell. Vunipola’s leadership style is more by example, rather than the vocal nature of the likes of Farrell and Brown.

If Eddie Jones truly believes England can win the 2019 World Cup, 36-times capped Vunipola is central to that. He will want the Vunipola of 2016, who picked up three man-of-the-match awards during England’s Six Nations Grand Slam campaign, and helped secure a 3-0 June series whitewash over Australia.

But he needs a run of games, he was influential in Saracens back-to-back Champions Cup wins in 2016 and 2017. But what can’t be escaped is that he’s made 85 appearances in five seasons for Saracens since joining from Wasps in 2013, that’s an average of 17 appearances a season. In those five years Saracens have reached the Premiership final  four times and played 119 games in that competition, while in Europe Sarries have been in the latter stages in all five years of the Champions Cup playing 42 games in that period. That’s a total of 161 games between the two tournaments, meaning Vunipola has played just under 53% of the club’s matches. Although it would be impossible for any player in the modern age to play every game due to squad rotation and depth, along with player welfare taken into consideration – via the Professional Game Agreement which allows England players a maximum limit of 32 matches a season – Vunipola hasn’t played as many games as he or his club ideally would have wished. Despite this owner Nigel Wray and Director of Rugby Mark McCall are clearly not concerned about his ability to withstand the rigours of rugby, handing him and his brother Mako new contracts in August until the end of the 2021/2022 season.

But while that vote of confidence is welcome while battling your way through a horror sequence of injuries, Vunipola is more than aware of the toll on players bodies. Almost 12 months ago he said “I just want people to understand that having surgery is not fun, and it’s not fun being injured. It gets to a point when you are just done”. England and Saracens fans will be hoping he’s far from done yet and instead the best is yet to come.

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Why Billy Vunipola's return should come with a pinch of caution