Eddie Jones, the England head coach, has decided to unleash the most powerful replacements bench international rugby has ever seen against Scotland, with Billy and Mako Vunipola tasked with tearing into tiring opponents to ensure a world record equalling 18th successive victory at Twickenham on Saturday.
Billy has played just 72mins of rugby after nearly four months out following knee surgery while Mako Vunipola is only just back from his own knee injury and Jones has decided to keep faith with Harlequins prop Joe Marler, who wins his 50th cap a year on from the “Gypsygate” controversy, and Nathan Hughes, the Wasps No8, who has found it tough to replicate his ball carrying form at test level.
Jones had the option of starting both Vunipolas, but believes Marler and Hughes deserve to start again having filled in for the Saracens brothers during the championship, including dealing with the problems Italy caused by not contesting the rucks.
England believe they have a much stronger squad than the Triple Crown chasing Scots and the eight “ finishers” as Jones now calls his replacements are; the Vunipola brothers, Jamie George Kyle Sinckler, Tom Wood, Danny Care, Ben Te’o and Anthony Watson. That is a potent blend of real power and searing pace with Anthony Watson, arguably England’s fastest wing, now free of injury problems and ready to burst back onto the test scene.
The England camp insist pictures of whiteboards revealing the three changes to the team that beat Italy which were photographed earlier this week have not impacted on their preparations as they were expected with only the decision on No8 Vunipola up for debate. By starting the younger Vunipoloa on the bench, Jones is showing faith in Hughes who is equally destructive, but has yet to show the kind of off-loading skills to compliment his raw power.
The choice of Marler to start his 50th international is also significant as the Harlequins prop acknowledges that Mako Vunipola is setting the standards for all of the England front row forwards. However, Marler remains a key figure in the England squad and his defensive work is just as important as his combative scrummaging and this selection milestone is testament to his improved mental strength and calmer outlook on life. A year ago he was banned for two weeks and fined £20,000 for calling Wales prop Samson Lee “gypsy boy” and received another two week ban for kicking Grenoble’s Arnaud Heguy.
Less than two weeks before England departed for last summer’s historic 3-0 whitewash of Australia on their own soil, Marler withdrew from selection on the grounds that he did not feel mentally right to do credit to the shirt. “I didn’t know how it was going to pan out – and at that point I didn’t care. I had to make a judgement knowing that I may not get back in the squad again;” he explained earlier in the Six Nations. “But stepping away from rugby a little bit and making more effort with my family – realising that is my No.1 priority and the thing I enjoy most – helped me on the field. Doing less is more in that regard.”
Marler’s redemption has been based on hard work and getting his priorities right and he could join Vunipola on the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand this summer by continuing to deliver big performances against Scotland and the Ireland in Dublin in the final Six Nations match on March 18.
Jones said:” “I congratulate Joe Marler on his 50-cap milestone. I have coached a lot of good players and he is certainly one of the best. He is an honest and committed team man and a fine individual. To have him and Mako available together to give us 80 minutes at loose-head is an enormous advantage.”
Behind a pack that will attempt to bully the Scots, Jones has brought in Youngs to improve the team’s tactical kicking options and handed starts to Joseph at outside centre and the hard working Nowell on the wing who scored a try in this fixture at Murrayfield last season.
As seen in the Evening Standard