Billy Vunipola appears increasing unlikely to play any part in England’s final World Cup group game against France.
Vunipola injured his left ankle in Saturday’s bonus-point victory over Argentina and after repeatedly receiving treatment on the pitch, was withdrawn at half-time and has undergone a scan.
While refusing to rule him out of the climax to Pool C against France, attack coach Scott Wisemantel revealed that the Saracens number eight has been doing recovery and rehabilitation work instead of training with the rest of Eddie Jones’ squad.
Having already qualified for the quarter-finals, England are able to make a number of changes knowing Saturday’s clash at International Stadium Yokohama decides only who finishes top of Pool C.
Vunipola, the team’s most potent forward ball carrier, is the only player to have started all 12 of this year’s Tests and his value to Jones means his fitness will not be gambled on.
“We’re being overly cautious. If there’s any risk he will not be 100 per cent he won’t play, but I don’t know the outcome of the scan. If there’s any risk, we won’t risk him,” Wisemantel said.
Tom Curry slotted in at number eight when Vunipola limped off against France, but Mark Wilson is favourite to fill the void before the knockout phase begins against Wales or Australia.
“We still have a luxury of carriers. Billy has been terrific for us, but he missed the autumn recently and Mark Wilson was the player of that series,” scrum-half Ben Youngs said.
“Billy does suck in lots of defenders and he’s a great carrier for us, but those other guys carry the ball differently because of the lines they pick. They are a bit more subtle about where they pop up.
“We’re blessed with some of the back rows that we have got, but we’re very confident they’ll carry us on to the front foot.”
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Australia coach Michael Cheika has made wholesale changes to his Wallabies side to face Georgia on Friday, resting captain Michael Hooper as he eyes a potential quarter-final blockbuster against England or France.
Only four players survive from the starting XV that beat Uruguay 45-10 on Saturday with Cheika shifting the exciting teenager Jordan Petaia from left to right wing and veteran flanker David Pocock taking the captain’s armband.
The hulking Petaia, Australia’s youngest ever World Cup player at 19, impressed against the South Americans, crashing over for one try and creating another.
Cheika also moved Matt To’omua from inside centre to fly-half in what will be a first combination with scrum-half Nic White and the 11th half-back pairing used by Australia since the 2015 World Cup.
Up front, it will be a special day for prop Sekope Kepu, who will become only the sixth player to win 110 caps for Australia.
Former skipper regains the armband in the absence of his “pooper” partner-in-crime Hooper, who is rested ahead of the possible last-eight clash in Oita.
Hooper will be on the bench for only the seventh time in his career. He will win his 99th cap if he comes onto the pitch.
Friday’s encounter will be the first Test meeting between Australia and Georgia.
Jonny May insists Eddie Jones has the vision to deliver England the World Cup – while mutiny threatens to break out in the French camp.
The fierce Six Nations rivals clash at International Stadium Yokohama on Saturday in a game that will decide who finishes top of Pool C with either Wales or Australia waiting in the quarter-finals.
Both teams are unbeaten in Japan but France have got progressively worse during their group campaign, culminating in Sunday’s 23-21 victory over Tonga, and there has been a report that an all-too familiar player-led coup is brewing.
Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal has even released a video responding to a dismal performance against the Pacific Islanders in which he encouraged the players to “take control guys, take the power. Kick the coaches out!”.
In contrast to the revolt brewing in Kumamoto, England’s united squad have plotted a comfortable route through the pool under the guidance of Jones.
“Eddie just knows how to run a programme. He drives hard standards but he’s charismatic,” Leicester wing May said.
“He’s got a personality. He’s got a ruthlessness about him. He’s very different to anyone I’ve worked with him – and that’s Eddie.
“He’s a pretty one-off character, but we all have belief in the programme he’s running because of the experience he has.
“We wouldn’t want anyone else taking us through this journey that we’re on. He’s been there and he’s done it and we buy into everything he wants us to do.
“We’ve got such a good squad and so much talent that nobody really needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat in a game or do anything other than doing their job to the best of their ability.
“If we’ve got 31 people doing that and all our management around us as well doing their job brilliantly then we have a very good chance of winning the World Cup.
“It’s not difficult for me getting up for England. You feel it building all week and at the moment I feel ready to go off like a rocket at the weekend.”
Meanwhile, Jamie George insists England have the firepower to cover for Billy Vunipola if his Saracens team-mate is ruled out against France.
Vunipola failed to appear for the second-half of Saturday’s 39-10 victory over Argentina after suffering an ankle injury that required ongoing treatment on the Tokyo Stadium pitch.
The marauding number eight has undergone a scan and a definitive update is expected on Tuesday, but with a quarter-final place already secured the overwhelming priority is to ensure he is fit for the knockout phase.
If Vunipola fails to pull through then Tom Curry or Mark Wilson will deputise in the back row for the Pool C finale at International Yokohama Stadium, but his absence would still have a significant impact on England’s ball carrying.
“Eddie made us aware of it when Billy came off at half-time. He said there will potentially be a little more responsibility for the other guys to step up and want the ball,” George said.
“If he does or doesn’t play then we’re all aware that we need to get our hands on the ball and impose ourselves physically.”
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