Nathan Hughes is relishing the prospect of joining forces with Billy Vunipola as part of an England ball carrying double act to frighten any international defence. Having earned a first call-up to the England squad, Hughes, the Wasps No8, must now convince head coach Eddie Jones he deserves to join Vunipola on the test stage for the four Autumn internationals, starting with South Africa on November 12.
Fijian-born Hughes qualified for England in June under the three year residency rule shortly after Vunipola had helped destroy Australia 3-0 and register an historic series triumph Down Under. It cemented Vunipola’s place in the team and threw down a gauntlet to Hughes, whose ball carrying from the base of the scrum is one area where he eclipses the Saracens No8.
Vunipola delivered another impressive performance as holders Saracens inflicted a first European Champions Cup home defeat on Toulon and now it is Hughes chance to stand tall on French soil as Wasps tackle Toulouse in another battle of former champions today. “It would be exciting to run alongside the Vunipola brothers (Billy and Mako) who have been playing outstanding rugby, but first and foremost I have to make the squad: “said 25-year-old Hughes, who is so new to the England cause he does not have a picture to accompany his details on the RFU website.
“I am very excited about the Autumn test matches and I want to concentrate on getting the little things right in my game, then everything will take care of itself. There is so much back row talent in the squad at the moment with Maro Itoje who can play there, Billy Vunipola who is playing outstandingly for Saracens and Chris Robshaw. We get to push each other.”
When Hughes, , 6ft 4ins and 18st, wins that first England cap it will revive the debate over how long a player should be resident before becoming eligible to swap countries. Hughes has done the three years required and while he spent the first 16 growing up in Lautoka, the second city of Fiji, he has no regrets about choosing to wear a different white international rugby jersey.
“ I haven’t had any negative reaction to my decision to play for England:” he added. “At the end of the day it is my decision to make – who I want to play for. I have spoken to my family and other people about choosing England and now we must just wait and see. “
Inevitably, there will a reaction to an England back row featuring Vunipola, son of a former Tonga captain, and Hughes, until recently a player very much on the radar of the Fijian rugby coaches. However, Vunipola arrived in Britain as an eight-year-old which makes him a very different case to Hughes and the current eligibility criteria means the sport at the highest level is littered with glass houses and very few countries – apart from Argentina -can claim to have taken the high ground.
For Hughes to become the latest convert, he must use matches like today’s intensely physical battle with Toulouse to change the perception that he is a punishing ball carrier who can drift in and out of matches. It is an aspect of his play that Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby, believes has been and continues to be addressed by Hughes.
Young explained:” “Nathan has improved his fitness out of sight and if he wants to play at the highest level that had to be done. He cannot afford to make those ball carries and then drift out of a game for 10 or 15 minutes and his fitness level is unrecognisable from where it was and his defensive capabilities have improved. He is a vastly better player and is much nearer an international player than he was 18 months ago
“The opportunity to see Billy and Nathan playing together for England is a mouth-watering one and no one would look forward to playing against those two players. There are not many better ball carriers than Nathan in world rugby. There are parts of his game that need improvement and fair play to Nathan, he has put in a lot of work having recognised what needs to be done.”
Hughes and his team mates head into the Toulouse match determined to prove they can now deal with the kind of problems created by Saracens who inflicted a first defeat of the season on Wasps, 30-14 on October 9. Saracens squeezed the life out of Wasps, denying them space and time to weave the intricate attacking patterns that left hapless Zebre beaten and bemused 82-14 last weekend.
Toulouse, having contrived to lose 23-21 to Connacht in Ireland in their opening Pool match, will be determined to restart their Cup campaign by replicating the pressure Saracens used to nullify Wasps attacking game. Hughes is well aware of the template Saracens created, but is adamant Wasps have learnt a painful lesson. He explained; “The Saracens defeat was a little kick for us and they didn’t allow us to play our game and they were on the front foot. We learnt from that experience and if Toulouse come at us that way, we know how to get out that situation and cope much better.
“It will be key to have a good first 20 minutes and put some points on the board and set ourselves up well. I believe we have still got another 20 per cent to add to the performance against Zebre.”
As seen in the Sunday Times