Injuries are an occupational hazard but if England prove as elusive with ball in hand as they have been with their recent fitness updates they will defeat Fiji comfortably on Saturday.
Rarely has there been a more protracted game of selectorial hokey-cokey, with the starting XV announcement pushed back to the eve of the game pending late checks on Billy Vunipola, Mike Brown, Nathan Hughes and Elliot Daly.
Vunipola has twice been publicly declared fit by the England management since Saturday night but is now looking an improbable starter at No8 after missing training along with Brown, Jonny May and Tom Wood, who has been recalled as back-row cover but arrived back at the team hotel with a stomach bug. With Hughes also having had a “lower leg injury” this week and May described by Eddie Jones as “not 100% fit to play Test rugby” after the energy‑sapping South Africa encounter there is more uncertainty than any coach would prefer.
If England end up picking the players who were involved in the squad’s final training session in Bagshot the chances are that Hughes will replace Vunipola at No8, with Northampton’s Teimana Harrison on the openside flank. Given Hughes has yet to start a Test and Harrison was hauled off unceremoniously after half an hour of the third Test against Australia in June, that may also help explain why Jones is continuing to hesitate.
Should Vunipola, Hughes and Wood fail to make it, England really would have an issue, having already released Ben Morgan and Josh Beaumont back to their clubs. There is also a decent chance of the versatile Daly starting on the wing in place of May, with Marland Yarde having returned to Harlequins on Tuesday. Brown has not trained much this week, with Alex Goode poised to start at full-back for the first time during Jones’s tenure and Henry Slade now on bench standby.
If this was the week of a World Cup final it would probably qualify as a crisis and England will have less wriggle room from January when it will become mandatory for sides to be announced 48 hours in advance, unless the two unions involved have agreed otherwise in advance. The World Rugby directive was triggered by Rugby Football Union objections after France delayed their team announcement until the Friday afternoon before a World Cup warm-up game last year. A whiff of hypocrisy? It would have saved much conjecture had Jones stuck a brace of AN Others at numbers seven and eight and announced the other 13 names.
Instead, Jones has steadfastly refused even to disclose which limb or body part is involved in some cases, insisting it would give Fiji an advantage. “You’ve got to remember no one plays Test rugby at 100% fit.”
Good luck to anyone trying to establish what “upper body soreness” means in relation to Vunipola but, given his massive collision with South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth last Saturday, a sore upper head cannot be entirely ruled out.
Leaving all the frustrating medical to-ing and fro-ing aside, Jones is not particularly dispirited, insisting his team have to learn to be adaptable if they want to be world champions in 2018. “The more our team is uncomfortable, the better it is. The World Cup in Japan is going to be really difficult ... you need players to be robust and flexible.
“That’s part of the process we’re trying to engage in at the moment, to make our team like that. We have to make sure we have a game we can play under any conditions, whether they be a typhoon, a monsoon, a hurricane, snow, 35C or 85% humidity. That’s what it’s going to take to win the World Cup.”
Jones also reiterated that an 11th successive win this year would not necessarily make England the finished article. “I don’t think we’ve achieved anything [but] we’ve got a group of players who are committed to be the No1 team in the world. They want to do something that hasn’t been done for a long time in England. We’ve got the talent to do it.”
Fiji have named 14 European-based players in their starting XV for the game under the captaincy of Akapusi Qera. Josh Matavesi of the Ospreys will start at fly-half behind seven of the same starting pack who posed England some difficulty in the opening game of the World Cup last year.
Fiji team M Talebula (Bordeaux-Bègles); B Masilevu (Brive), A Tikoirotuma (London Irish), A Vulivuli (Racing 92), N Nadolo (Montpellier); J Matavesi (Ospreys), S Vularika (Suva); C Ma’afu (Northampton), S Koto (Macon), M Saulo (Toulon), A Ratuniyawara (Agen), L Nakarawa (Racing 92), D Waqaniburotu (Brive), P Yato (Clermont Auvergne), A Qera (Montpellier, capt). Replacements T Tuapati (Provence), P Ravai (Southland), L Atalifo (Canterbury), N Soqeta (Biarritz), N Dawai (Otago), E Radrodro (Suva), N Matawalu (Exeter), K Murimurivalu (La Rochelle).
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