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The most obvious call to replace Vunipola at No.8

By Alex Shaw
With Billy Vunipola unavailable, who do England turn to? (Getty Images)

Since making his England debut in 2013, Billy Vunipola has gone on to become one of the most pivotal players in the side, with the team’s fortunes often waxing and waning on the form and presence of the sizeable No 8.


For much of that period, England have lacked physical ball-carriers, particularly in their pack, and Vunipola was the much-needed source of front-foot ball that allowed England to up the tempo and ensure their playmakers exceled.

His deputy was Bristol Bears star Nathan Hughes for a time, although the Fijian-born back rower has since seemingly fallen out of favour with England head coach Eddie Jones, and despite toying with a couple of Ben Morgan and Zach Mercer call-ups and an appearance or two for Mark Wilson at the position, an alternative to Vunipola has not been found.

The size that Jones covets at the position is no secret and perhaps explains why Sam Simmonds continues to miss out on selection, but it doesn’t help explain the omissions of Alex Dombrandt or Teimana Harrison, especially with Vunipola now sidelined with a broken arm.

Dombrandt was exceptional for Harlequins in the 2018/19 season in what was a breakout campaign for the 22-year-old, whilst Harrison’s physicality with the ball in hand has been a big component of Northampton Saints’ rise back to prominence in the Gallagher Premiership. With neither included in England’s Guinness Six Nations squad, Jones is heading into the tournament without a designated No 8.

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He has options, though, with Lewis Ludlam, Ted Hill and Ben Earl featuring alongside the ‘Kamikaze Twins’, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry. None of that trio are a like-for-like replacement for Vunipola, although they do each offer a physical presence with ball in hand.

Perhaps the most obvious call is for Ludlam to start at No 8, with the Northampton back rower having been part of the group for the past year and the violence of his ball-carrying has proven to be a very valuable attribute for England, albeit with that impact coming off the bench more often than not during the recent Rugby World Cup. He works well alongside Curry and Underhill, adds further to their breakdown skill and even adds a mobility that Vunipola doesn’t.


Then there’s Earl, whose form for Saracens so far this season has been overwhelming. With their internationals being managed back into action and the salary cap furore of their own making that has surrounded them, Earl has stood tall and been counted on the pitch. Whether used as a flanker or at the base of the scrum, Earl’s ability to make tacklers miss and break arm tackles has seen him rampage through Premiership defences of late.

The final option among the remaining back rows would be to move Hill into No 8 – or have him on the blindside and switch Curry to eight. Hill certainly ticks the physical box and he has previously played at lock and No 8 during his time in the Worcester Warriors academy and international age-grade sides. If you subscribe to the old school stereotypes of the respective back row positions, blindside is his true home, with the versatile loose forward a destructive tackler and a scything presence at attacking breakdowns.

Moving Courtney Lawes to six has also been mooted, with the lock certainly possessing the trust of Jones in the back row, especially with two mobile contact area specialists like Underhill and Curry prowling alongside him. At this point, Lawes or Ludlam would seem like the safest options for Jones, with both having been a part of this group at the Rugby World Cup and complemented the other players in the starting pack.

In previous seasons, this would have been a real cause for concern for England and Jones. Vunipola had become so vital to the team, Hughes’ club form didn’t quite translate to the international arena and with that lack of front-foot ball that would be able to be generated, a midfield loaded with the likes of Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Henry Slade would look a lot less effective.


This isn’t the England of previous seasons, though.

If you use the team’s highly successful Rugby World Cup last year as an example, England are no longer a side that has to rely on just one or two heavy ball-carriers to shoulder the gain-line burden. Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler have joined Mako Vunipola in the front row, with all three capable of providing go forward in the loose, Maro Itoje has regained the comfort with ball in hand that he had in age-grade rugby and both Curry and Underhill chip in significantly, too. Manu Tuilagi is back in the midfield also, providing England with a means over getting over the gain-line further from the ruck on slow ball.

The younger Vunipola’s impact at the Rugby World Cup shouldn’t be overlooked. He generated that quick ball and one or two metre gains close to the ruck and that was important, although it was also a tournament where he was considerably off of his best. Yet England still prospered all the way until the final.

It’s a shame that we do not get to see how Dombrandt would fare at international level or that the silky evasion skills of Simmonds are not put to the test, but this is an England team that is built to survive the loss of Vunipola, something that simply wasn’t true in seasons past.

That said, identifying a player that can deputise for and eventually compete with Vunipola is important for Jones and England. They won’t always be able to rely on a pack that is as influential in the loose, particularly with the ball in hand, as the current one is.

Maybe in the coming years that is Dombrandt. It’s almost certain that Jones will have had a word with the Harlequin and told him what he needs to work on in order to be involved in the future. Simmonds might be out of luck under Jones and have to hope for the next England coach to have a different set of desired skills in their ideal No 8, whilst Mercer will be an interesting one to watch when he returns from injury. The Bath man has added weight and yet he still remains as dynamic in the loose as he has always been.

Earl and Ludlam move around the back row at club level, but they could both potentially be viewed as long term eights at international level, or could Curry be that option, with Hill taking on more responsibilities on the blindside?

Further down the English rugby pyramid there are prospects such as Tom Willis, Izaiha Moore-Aino, Rus Tuima, Nahum Merigan and Jack Clement, the latter quartet of whom are a few years away from that conversation at the moment, whilst Andy Christie and Sam Moore are two players in need of more playing time to push their development on.

Whatever way Jones goes at the position over the next two months, it will certainly be one of the more talked about selection decisions in the build-up to the France game and beyond. The England squad is certainly in a better place to deal with it now than it was previously, although establishing some international experience in the nation’s other No 8 options wouldn’t go amiss for Jones.

Watch: Could Saracens’ salary cap scandal help New Zealand?

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