Hughes defies logic to set up titanic encounter with Vunipola
Nathan Hughes’ ability to defy medical opinion has set up a titanic clash with England No8 rival Billy Vunipola when Wasps attempt to reach a second successive Aviva Premiership play-off final by winning at Saracens tomorrow.
Hughes suffered a recurrence of knee ligament damage playing for England against France in March and along with Northampton’s Courtney Lawes, who suffered a similar injury in the same match, was immediately ruled out for the rest of the season. The medical diagnosis also said Hughes would not be fit for England’s three-test tour of South Africa but if the Fijian born No8 delivers a big performance against Vunipola, head coach Eddie Jones could be tempted to draft one of his most effective ball carriers into the tour squad.
Hughes has been named to start for Wasps who are missing the injured James Haskell and Tommy Taylor and he will be in direct opposition to Vunipola whose return from knee surgery was halted by a hamstring injury. Now, Vunipola is ready to prove he is still the most destructive force in English rugby and will relish the chance to take on his England rival.
Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby, is understandably delighted to have Hughes in his back row against a formidable Sarries pack that has a back five featuring not only Vunipola but three locks in George Kruis, Maro Itoje and Nick Isiekwe.
Young said: “We have prepared well over the last fortnight and while it is disappointing to be without the likes of James Haskell, Tommy Taylor and Simon McIntyre through injury, it is good to have Nathan Hughes and James Gaskell back.
“Sarries are obviously a top side – their record over the last few years speaks for itself, so we know we will have to produce our best to beat them. It is also important that we play at that level for the full 80 minutes. This is an area we have discussed in detail and where I believe the quality of our bench will make a positive impact.
“I am confident we can score points, even against their legendary defence; it will be a big battle up front and we know we have to stop their ball carriers and win the battle of the gain line, with and without the ball. Both teams will be really up for it. “
Flanker Jackson Wray will make his 200th appearance for Sarries who are without Lions and Wales wing Liam Williams due to a shoulder injury and Chris Wyles comes in for what will be his last home match before retiring. Hooker Schalk Brits starts on the bench and will, like Wyles, be making his last home appearance before quitting professional rugby.
Brits, the former Springbok hooker, is hoping for a fitting finale at Twickenham in the Premiership final on May 26 although the temptation of another season of top-flight rugby has kept him awake at night. Brits celebrated his 37 Birthday this week and said: “ I have had many nights when I have been asking the question “ why retire?”. I didn’t want to be asked to retire and you always want to finish on a high and physically this is the best I have felt since my knee operation a couple of seasons ago.
“It is a credit to Sarries and the way they manage me that I am kept fresh for the weekends. But, you have to step away from the game at some point and this is the right time. “
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