Jamie George backs ‘driven’ Billy Vunipola to thrive on England return

Billy Vunipola has been backed to capitalise on his England reprieve in the forthcoming series against Australia and is ready to make up for the pain inflicted by being dropped by Eddie Jones for more than a year, according to Jamie George.

Vunipola is hoping for a first Test appearance since March 2021 in Saturday’s opening Test in Perth, having earned a recall for his form in guiding Saracens to this season’s Premiership final and benefiting from injuries to Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds.

George initially suffered a similar fate to Vunipola when he too was dropped at the start of the season and, while injuries led to a swift recall, he has been able to empathise with the No 8’s extended exile. The Saracens hooker revealed he had spoken to his clubmate in detail over the pain of being dropped by England but believes Vunipola is ready to make his presence felt when he makes his international return.

“Billy was hurting, I don’t think he will mind me saying that,” said George. “He loves playing for England. He loves playing at the top level. He is probably the most competitive person I have ever come across. He wants to compete against the best and show that he can be the best. What better opportunity than against Australia on their home turf?

“He has always been driven. The way that he leads at Saracens is different. He leads from the front. He works incredibly hard. He is constantly wanting to evolve his game. I know that it hurt him not being involved in this. I have spoken to him at length about it. He was upset. This is where he wants to be. I am hugely excited to see him back in the Test arena because this is where he deserves to be. I know he will be chomping at the bit if he gets his opportunity on Saturday.”

While injuries have aided Vunipola’s cause his ball-carrying – never more evident than in the Premiership final – offers Jones a different option at No 8 and a valuable one given the England head coach has identified a lack of power as one of the key reasons behind the disappointing Six Nations campaign. The England forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot, is only too aware of Vunipola’s abilities – revealing he was at the forefront of his planning for the 2019 World Cup final when he was on the South Africa coaching staff – and called on the 29-year-old to exert his influence when his opportunity comes.

“I thought he played really well in the final,” said Proudfoot. “It was good to see him carrying again, good to see him involving himself. You want a player like that making a big impact, and I think he did. We’re looking for more from him in that respect. My impression of him is how crucial a player he is. A player with that impact is massive for a team. I think if you miss out on the team when you come back, you can see the difference in players’ eyes. They don’t want to be on the outside, they want to be on the inside.”

England are seeking a ninth straight win against Australia under Jones but after three defeats in the Six Nations and a subsequent embarrassing loss to the Barbarians, the Wallabies are favourites with the bookmakers on Saturday. Proudfoot believes England’s flawless record against Australia of late has the potential to set his side up for a fall, citing New South Wales’s victory over Queensland in the second State of Origin game in Perth on Sunday. “It gives you a certain amount of vulnerability because you know the opposition is itching for your scalp,” Proudfoot said. “You’re vulnerable at stages like this.

“We went to the State of Origin on Sunday night. Queensland did really well, unexpectedly, in the first game. In the second game, it turned over. So when you win, you’re vulnerable because your opposition is obviously hurting.”

Meanwhile, the Australia prop James Slipper insists he is ready to step in at tighthead prop on Saturday if required. The Wallabies are sweating on the fitness of Taniela Tupou and, if he is ruled out, Slipper – a loosehead by trade – may be called upon, as he was when the two sides met in November.

The 33-year-old made his debut against England in Perth in 2010 in a match in which he also played on both sides of the scrum. Australia won but England were dominant at the scrum, handing Slipper, who has now amassed 114 caps, a fearsome introduction to the Test arena. “I’m a loosehead who can cover tighthead,” said Slipper. “In a perfect world I’ll be playing loosehead and fingers crossed, but there’s also a chance I’ll be sliding across as well.”