October 7, 2019 / 5:17 AM / 17 days ago

England chilled over Vunipola fitness for France clash

(Reuters) - England are awaiting the outcome of tests on Billy Vunipola’s injured ankle ahead of their final World Cup pool clash with France on Saturday but are comfortable that others can step into the ball-carrying void should the number eight not make it.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup warm-up match - England v Italy - St James' Park, Newcastle, Britain - September 6, 2019 England's Billy Vunipola celebrates at the end of the match Action Images via Reuters/Ed Sykes/Files

The 26-year-old started his 12th straight match, and seventh in two months, for England in Saturday’s 39-10 victory over Argentina but left the field in pain at halftime after twisting his left ankle.

“We will have a clearer picture tomorrow. He’s having a scan as a precaution,” England scrum coach Neal Hatley told a news conference on Monday.

“He’s walking around with a smile on his face - but it’s nearly lunchtime so he’s happy.”

With England already safely through, and preparing for a game where defeat would be anything but a disaster, coach Eddie Jones is unlikely to take the slightest risk on Vunipola - the one player in the squad where there is no real direct cover.

Mark Wilson would be the likely replacement and, though he has had an excellent year and is a fearsome tackler, he does not possess the ball-carrying skills of Vunipola.

“We plan for all eventualities and we have played a lot of rugby without the Vunipolas,” Hatley said, with reference to Billy’s brother, Mako, who has barely played since injuring his hamstring badly in May.

“Billy is an important figure for us, but other people pick up the slack - we’ve got like Ellis Genge, Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Kyle Sinckler.”

Hooker Jamie George has also developed into a dangerous open-field runner and said Jones had talked to the team about the changing situation at halftime against Argentina.

“Eddie made us aware of it, giving us a bit more responsibility to carry the ball more,” he said.

“The French pack are massive so it’s a different challenge – maybe similar to Tonga in terms of pure weight - and we are aware of that threat.”

England’s only other injury worry concerns prop Joe Marler but initial concerns that he had damaged a hamstring proved unfounded. “He has done training this morning and he has played a lot of rugby for us and it’s a position we have good strength in, and we will see how he pulls up to make sure we put out the strongest team possible,” Hatley said.

“There’s a little bit of (pain) referral in his back and we will see how he is tomorrow.”

Jones will name his team on Thursday for Saturday’s match and it would surprise nobody if he kept his cards close to his chest about both injured players until the team sheet is published.

Reporting by Mitch Phillips and Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Paul Tait

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