Despite his rampaging turn at number 8 in the Calcutta Cup, could Billy Vunipola be of more use to England as a blindside flanker?
Given that Ben Morgan has already proven himself at the top level, and Josh Beaumont looks set to break through sooner rather than later, England looked stacked for options at number 8. This is also ignoring the fact that Nathan Hughes is set to become eligible for England ahead of this summer’s tour.
Now obviously England already have plenty of options at blindside with Chris Robshaw and James Haskell the current front runners, but rapidly being chased down by the likes of Maro Itoje, Jack Clifford and Dave Ewers, however most of these players are either getting on in age, are untried at international level, or can be utilised in other roles.
In this context, and given England’s current issues with ball carrying forwards, the move of Vunipola to the blindside could be a sensible option. Now obviously, as Eddie Jones gets to grips with his team, the ball carrying issue could be resolved, but there is still a long way to go given Sergio Parisse carried for more yards on his own this weekend than the entire England pack combined (including replacements).
It is therefore vital for England to find more ball carriers in the pack, and therefore sliding Vunipola across means Jones can still make use of his star man in the back row, whilst also adding in another ball carrier like Hughes or Morgan in the future.
There are some potential hurdles like Vunipola’s lack of experience at blindside, but it is a roll he has fulfilled for Saracens on a number of occasions. Both he, and Hughes have been utilised as line out jumpers at times as well which means that the set piece shouldn’t be too much of an issue. It would also give Jones the option of looking at Josh Beaumont a number 8 who offers something a bit different at the back of the scrum, and is also a clever lineout operator.
It is a move that would require buy-in from multiple players, and could ultimately fall flat, but given the packs continued struggle to get over the gainline, it definitely has to be an option worth exploring further. Jones could perhaps opt to place Beaumont on the bench against Italy this weekend and bring him on with 30 minutes to go, and shift Vunipola to the blindside, or he could wait until the summer tour, and make use of both Vunipola and Hughes in the back row which would add some serious forward momentum
Their ability to get over the gainline would also be a huge bonus for a dynamic backline who are desperately in need of some good ball from which they can attack off. By including more dynamic ball carriers in the back row, both of whom can offload, it opens up a whole world of opportunities for the likes of Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell who are both adept at cutting in field and running on a ball carrier’s shoulder.