Only months after Eddie Jones opted to take one specialist No.8 to the Rugby World Cup, it has quickly become one of the most competitive positions in the England squad.
Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt was a rising star last season, but failed to make the RWC squad, while an ACL injury to Sam Simmonds and a slump in form for Nathan Hughes saw them miss out as well.
However, all of Vunipola’s competitors, which also includes his Saracens teammate Ben Earl, have started the season in blistering fashion with call ups to the Six Nations squad looking inevitable.
The 22-year-old Dombrandt has been tipped by many to feature for England, and he has only improved his chances recently. In what has not always been a Harlequins team on top, particularly in the recent loss to Ulster, Dombrandt has still managed to make an impact ball in hand, and will inevitably improve in a strong England pack.
— Christopher Barnard (@CBarnard89) December 15, 2019
Exeter Chiefs No.8 Simmonds’ man of the match display against Sale Sharks in the Champions Cup at the weekend was perhaps the biggest statement to Jones so far this season, and proof that he has returned to top form following his injury. Not only did he go over for two tries, but he showed the athleticism and pace of a back when in space, and the power of a forward in the tight, which is what makes him such a unique player.
Billy Vunipola's arse-out pivot: pic.twitter.com/qqZ0fkvP73
— Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix) December 14, 2019
Vunipola’s performance against Munster at Allianz Park was just as impressive, particularly his assist for Sean Maitland’s try. The 27-year-old was able to attract four defenders before offloading to the Scotland international. This is not only an insight into the power he possesses, but the formidable reputation that he has. Such is his presence on the field, Keith Earls was understandably drawn in to try and help two of his teammates stop him, which created the space for the try.
— Hiding for a while (@LFCRulesOK) December 13, 2019
While he may be used sparingly this season, Vunipola showed that post-RWC fatigue is not an issue, with a workload few can match in his position. In his absence, the 21-year-old Earl has stepped up this season as well, and will undeniably be on Jones’ radar.
Meanwhile, Hughes has been reinvigorated since his move to Bristol Bears in the summer, and he would have caught the eye of the England selectors’ with a number of man of the match performances in the Gallagher Premiership.
I think Earl's pace will be his USP for the England 6N squad, and possible match day 23. A replacement backrower is able to cause real damage by breaking the line and then really test the opposition's scramble defence. Billy Vunipola, for all his strengths, can't really do this.
— Small Man Peaky (@jonnymango95) December 6, 2019
The best thing for England is that these players all offer something different. Simmonds and Earl may not have the size advantage over their competitors, but they have the pace and dynamism to trouble any defence, and also the versatility to play across the back row.
Changes are expected to the England squad for next year’s Six Nations, and Jones will be in a quandary choosing who will make it.
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.