While Saracens fans may be lamenting their side’s Champions Cup draw with Ospreys – a draw that ultimately will have cost them a home quarter-final – a far more worrying sight at Liberty Stadium was the exit of Billy Vunipola with a fractured forearm. The result: Vunipola will be absent for 12 weeks, meaning he will play no part in England’s 2018 Six Nations campaign.
This year’s competition is likely to be the most hotly contested in recent memory, with a consistent England now joined by a resurgent Scotland and Ireland. I am not including the other teams in that list for the following reasons. France are currently going through the most French managerial change imaginable, with the FFR attempting to avoid paying Guy Noves compensation for terminating his contract by accusing him of serious misconduct. Wales have a difficult fixture list that sees them play Scotland first, followed by visits to Twickenham and the Aviva in succession, which could kill any momentum they hope to have in the tournament. And Italy… are Italy (although I wouldn’t be surprised if they scored a win against France at the moment).
With England’s position as the top northern hemisphere nation potentially under threat, this latest injury setback looks a difficult obstacle. Vunipola’s role as England’s wrecking ball truly cannot be overstated, as he is often the first player to receive the ball from the ruck. Not only is he able to consistently make metres, but it usually takes several opposition players to bring him down while he is doing so. In a side that focuses heavily on exploiting space by distributing the ball as wide as possible, having three of the opposing team tied down in a ruck opens up possibilities all over the pitch.
So, who exactly is going to fill Billy’s boots at this year’s six nations? With regular replacement Nathan Hughes also out injured, it seems more than likely that the No 8 jersey will be given to Exeter’s Sam Simmonds. The issue here, however, is that Simmonds, while dynamic, lacks the ball-carrying ability of Vunipola (in fact, this is an issue throughout the team but that is a different criticism).
It also makes Jones’ selection crucial. With James Haskell also out of the squad, the back row looks set to be comprised of Robshaw, Simmonds and Undersell. It is a perfectly workable combination that is likely to put in a good work rate and will be solid in defence. The problem is that it lacks a certain flair, or the ability to produce a moment of magic that can change games when things are looking difficult. It’s the Wetherspoon’s of international rugby – we won’t ever be disappointed, but we’re unlikely to be impressed.
The other option for Jones is Zach Mercer – who I have just been informed is not the character played by Seth McFarlane in The Orville – Bath’s young flanker, who has been covering at 8 over the past few weeks in the absence of Taulupe Faletau. More knowledgeable fans of the game might well remember Mercer in his role as captain of the England youth side that reached the final of the 2017 U20 World Championships.
Does he have what it takes? In all honesty, an international match against Italy is probably both the most useful and at the same time most useless environment in which to find out. On the one hand, it is a ‘competitive’ game (I hope any Italians who may read this will forgive the inverted commas), albeit one that England should navigate fairly easily. Experimenting with the starting line-up is unlikely to have too negative an impact, meaning the pressure on Mercer will not be overwhelming.
At the same time, Eddie Jones will have little idea whether or not the youngster can deliver at the highest level of international rugby. Finally, a few voices (who should know better!) have whispered the name of Gloucester’s Ben Morgan. While Morgan has the experience to play at this level, he has spent a significant chunk of the past few years out with injury. He might be slowly regaining some form, but he remains on the periphery and should probably stay there for a little while longer.
England will head into the tournament under pressure, and fielding an inexperienced team against Italy is now a distinct possibility. Expect a few nervy performances and close games in the absence of experienced cool heads (and Joe Marler). However, if England’s rookies can successfully navigate this tournament, it will invaluably strengthen the already impressive depth of this international squad. Vunipola will be missed, but through his absence comes opportunity.
Photograph: Charlie via Flickr