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Monday Aug 21, 2023

Matt Banahan gives his thoughts on Billy Vunipola replacement

Matt Banahan has taken to Twitter to detail his choice on Billy Vunipola’s replacement should the Saracens man face a ban following his red card in England’s loss to Ireland on Saturday.

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When Steve Borthwick announced the England squad for the upcoming World Cup it was met with much skepticism, not least because of some perceived weak spots in the side. The major talking points were the lack of depth both in both the centres and at number 8.

England’s Henry Slade during a media session at the Honda England Rugby Performance Centre at Pennyhill Park, Bagshot. Picture date: Friday November 11, 2022. (Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images)

Borthwick had adopted a dynamic selection policy by indicating that certain players predominantly utilised in one position, could easily transfer to another should they be needed. Whilst this selection policy does provide a strong squad depth, it also puts England short of naturals in certain positions.

This could not be demonstrated more so than in the case of England’s number 8 conundrum they now find themselves. Billy Vunipola was England’s only natural number 8, and his involvement in the World Cup appears to be in jeopardy before the tournament has even begun.

Borthwick does have the option to choose from the likes of Ben Earl or Tom Curry to take up the mantle at the back of the scrum, should he decide not to call up another number 8. The downsides to this is that England would then lose out on their prowess on the flanks as well as either player not quite having the impact that a natural number 8 might have.

tom curry

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – JULY 02: Tom Curry of England makes a break during game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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Whilst Vunipola has been a main stay in the England squad for many years now, it has to be argued that his constant involvement is less down to his own form, but more so the current lack of competition from other 8s.

At one stage it appeared that the 30-year-old had reached the end of the road in the England shirt, as plenty of young talent was coming through the ranks to knock his sizeable frame off his perch. Despite some recent challenges, it has not come into fruition.

Sam Simmonds was at one stage the fan favourite to take Vunipola’s shirt, after dazzling fans with his short bursts of power and incredible try scoring record for Exeter Chiefs, even winning the European Player of the Year back in 2020. His selection in this World Cup has not been in Borthwick’s control, however, as Simmonds ruled himself out midway through this year ahead of his move to Montpellier.

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Alex Dombrandt was, for a certain period, England’s first choice number 8, but after a series of mediocre performances that resembled nothing of the Dombrandt we see for Harlequins, he was subsequently cut from the final World Cup squad.

Whilst England do at their disposal have plenty of other options at 8, including former Wasps and Bordeaux Begles number 8, Tom Willis, the major name that’s being screamed at Borthwick is Zach Mercer.

The 26-year-old is joining Gloucester ahead of the upcoming Premiership season, and has been in stellar form for Montpellier since joining from Bath in 2021. As a younger player it is worth remembering that he performed at such a standard for Bath that he forced Wales legend Taulupe Faletau to settle for the more unfamiliar flank position.

This has clearly been remembered fondly by Bath and Gloucester legend Matt Banahan as he calls for his former teammate to be given recognition.

Despite the widespread inclination from fans to give Mercer the opportunity to add to his current 2-caps, he was omitted from the original training squad back in June, in favour of Tom Willis. Banahan’s call for Mercer to be called up has been backed by many others, see here:

Borthwick will find out whether changes to the squad are needed by Tuesday 22nd August – when Vunipola has his disciplinary hearing.

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