Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola have been backed to “make good decisions” about their future at Saracens by England’s defence coach John Mitchell. With Sarries due to play in the Championship next season as part of a series of punishments for salary cap breaches, the short-term prospects of their star international players has been a source of much intrigue.
A handful have already signed permanent or loan deals elsewhere for the 2020-21 campaign and while the likes of Jamie George, Elliot Daly and Vunipola’s brother Billy are committed to staying at Allianz Park, speculation continues to follow those who have yet to publicly follow suit.
That includes the elder Vunipola and Itoje, with the latter linked earlier this year with a short-term move to French side Racing 92.
Mitchell is happy for others, including head coach Eddie Jones, to offer counsel during the current coronavirus lockdown but is confident that the lure of pulling on an England shirt will be a guiding principle in any choice they do make.
“I’m sure Eddie, as he is very good at, is guiding them and helping them. They’ll probably seek his advice at some point,” said Mitchell.
“They’ve got people they respect in their families and friends and they’ve got people within Saracens they respect who they have built up trust with.
“I’m quite confident both of them will make good decisions – decisions that are right for them and their families but also what’s right for them in terms of playing Test rugby for England, because they are two guys who love playing for England.”
At present Mitchell has no idea when he might see the likes of Itoje and Vunipola again, let alone when they will be back at Pennyhill Park working on drills.
But, despite a long and impressive CV that includes a stint as All Blacks head coach, the 56-year-old is ready to embrace a new way of working that makes allowances for a world still coming to grips with the prevalence of social distancing.
“When we do get the green button, we as a coaching group will need to be ready,” he said.
“We’re going to have to be creative and innovative about how we do things. That’s exciting as well, it’s really refreshing to try a different way.
“I’m sure a lot of our players are going to be better for the situation as well, a lot of them have had to find a way to train during this period with home constraints and that will benefit us in the long run. We can empower players when they do come back into the environment.”
Selection might be another area that requires fresh thinking after a long lay-off that will deny international coaches the chance to assess the respective form of emerging talents and established names.
“In the last cycle Eddie was very smart in this area,” he said. “In Lions year there was a window of opportunity to introduce players because of the load the top players experienced being in the Lions. That brought through the likes of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.
“I think there’s a real core in his thinking and strategy. Once rugby starts again, if that cycle recurs, there’s no reason why we won’t take the same window of opportunity to introduce younger players that could (reach) the World Cup.”
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