Defence coach John Mitchell has given an update on the fitness situation surrounding Mako Vunipola while also giving a reflection on the Guinness Six Nations battle brewing between Mark Wilson and Ben Earl to take over in the England back row this weekend from the injured Sam Underhill. 

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With Joe Marler having pulled out of the original England squad due to personal reasons and Vunipola still rehabilitating the injured achilles that ruled him out of the December 6 Autumn Nations Cup final win over France, Eddie Jones has been left somewhat lightweight in terms of experienced looseheads to choose from.    

Ellis Genge, who is expected to start at Twickenham against Scotland, has been a replacement when winning 15 of his 23 previous caps, while expected sub Beno Obano is uncapped as is Tom West, who was called into the squad as Marler’s replacement.  

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That has placed a focus on whether Vunipola, who has played 63 times for England, can eventually get himself right and into the selection mix in the coming weeks. He has been with the England in a training rehabilitation capacity, but Mitchell expects he will at some stage of the championship be considered for selection. 

“Mako did that achilles niggle in November and he is still rehabbing that,” explained Mitchell. “To sum up simply, he is going good but he is probably one stage behind the return to training, he is probably at that level. If I look at it from a positive point of view, there are really good signs there. To be one stage from a return to training is a good sign.”

Switching the back row selection ahead of Thursday;’s team announcement, Mitchell dwelt on how Wilson and Earl have been going in the back row contest to take over from the injured Underhill who was last week replaced in the squad by Jack Willis following a hip injury.

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“It’s a bit unfortunate for Sam,” said the assistant coach who earlier on Tuesday confirmed a contract extension had been signed taking him through to the 2023 World Cup in France. “He is very fortunate that the injury can be loaded which is really good for him mentally. It’s very clear where he sits. 

“As for Ben and Mark Wilson, Mark is an experienced back rower and Ben is an exciting young back rower who every campaign is making progress. It’s awesome to see these guys as people get better as back rowers as they go through each of the campaigns. 

“If, for example, you look at Tom Curry and Sam Underhill from the World Cup they are just streets ahead in terms of their maturity and the way they have evolved their games as well. It’s really good signs and there is really good competition in this group. They are extremely helpful to each other as well in aspects of their game.”

Wilson last started for England last March versus Wales, packing down at openside in a back row that had Curry picked at No8 and Courtney Lawes at blindside. Earl, meanwhile, has yet to start a Test match having earned all eight of his caps off the bench.  

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