Billy Vunipola looks set to start Saracens’ Premiership semi-final against Wasps this Saturday after coming through training unscathed in his latest return from injury.
The England international has barely played this season, having suffered a shoulder injury last year, a knee injury at the start of the season and a fractured forearm on his return in January that ruled him out of both the autumn internationals and the Six Nations as well as the bulk of Saracens’ Premiership and European Champions Cup campaign.
Having returned to action from the replacements’ bench in the victory over London Irish on the final weekend in April, the 25-year-old then tweaked his hamstring in training and missed the final regular season win over Gloucester, but director of rugby Mark McCall expects to have Vunipola available for this weekend’s play-off clash as Allianz Park.
“We’re very hopeful Billy will be fine,” McCall said on Tuesday. “He trained fully today and will train on Thursday and unless there’s a setback [he’ll play]. He did everything today which is good. He was fine today.
“Of course it is [a boost]. He’s a great player and we’ve kind of done without him for the whole year, so it’s a big boost for the team – a big boost for Billy as well to get on the park again hopefully if that does happen.”
The 38-cap No 8 was last week named in Eddie Jones’ squad that will tour South Africa, despite the England head coach unsure whether Vunipola will be fit for the tour. Having not played for the national team since the 2017 Six Nations defeat by Ireland, Vunipola has been given McCall’s blessing to go on the tour without fear of any further injury setback.
McCall added: “He’s certainly fresh. Now he needs to go and play rugby, that’s for sure, and he deserves to have an injury-free run and I think he’ll add massively to [England’s] appeal. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Given Vunipola’s 18-month nightmare run of injuries, McCall would be forgiven for easing Vunipola back into the fold in order to minimise the risk of any further setbacks. But the season-ending injury suffered by Schalk Burger combined with the absence of Calum Clark could is likely to force the Northern Irishman into selecting Vunipola to start this weekend.
“I suppose that’s a choice that we’ve got to make, there’s arguments both ways,” McCall said. “Jackson [Wray] will definitely play. Schalk Burger is out for the rest of the season, he tore his hamstring against Gloucester, Calum Clark is also out at the moment.
“Michael Rhodes is back which is good so we’ve got some people missing in the back-five of the pack, but we’ve got some people coming back too which is good – Rhodesy will play his third game, Billy should be fine, Will Skelton is back as well and available too.
“Liam Williams is touch-and-go, he got a knock on the shoulder against Gloucester so we’ll make a decision on him on Thursday probably.”
The likelihood is that Wray, who over the weekend was named Saracens’ Players’ Player of the Year and is in line for his 200th appearance if selected against Wasps, will move to the No 7 shirt to accommodate the returning Vunipola with Rhodes at blindside flanker and England Under-20’s captain ben Earl providing cover from the replacements.
“Jackson’s making his 200th appearance for Saracens this weekend,” McCall said. “Time has flown by because I remember when I first came here he was 18 and to see him develop into the player he’s become, the person he’s become, has been a privilege for all of us I think and to get 200 caps before he is 27 takes some doing. He epitomises everything that we want our players to be like.”
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