Mako Vunipola set to feature against Italy after long injury lay-off

English prop has been sidelined since November with a calf and achilles injury

Mako Vunipola has declared himself ready to answer England's call as Eddie Jones considers throwing another of his rusty Saracens contingent in at the deep end.

Vunipola has been sidelined since November with a calf and achilles injury, but after missing out in the dismal defeat by Scotland last week, Jones wasted little time in recalling the loosehead prop. He now seems set to feature against Italy and the 30-year-old said he has no qualms if Jones puts him straight into the starting lineup rather than easing him back off the replacements’ bench.

Against Scotland, four Saracens players – Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Jamie George and Maro Itoje – made their first appearances in two months and all bar Itoje struggled to match their opponents' intensity. Billy Vunipola, who had played once for Saracens, was similarly below par.

Jones, however, has welcomed Mako Vunipola's return, describing him as the "elder statesman" of his squad with the forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot, citing the galvanising effect he has on the rest of the pack.

“I’m happy with how I’ve recovered, my achilles is good to go,” Vunipola said. “In terms of match fitness, still a bit to get there but I feel fit and ready to go out there if called upon.

“You’ve done it before so you have that experience to fall back on. Match fitness and match sharpness is a factor but attitude is the biggest thing – how you attack it.”

Jones has said he will not make changes for the sake of it when he announces his starting XV on Thursday, but George Ford and Courtney Lawes are among those pushing for inclusion. He may also give a first start to Dan Robson or even a debut to Harry Randall at scrumhalf, while Kyle Sinckler will feature, having been suspended following a ban for swearing at a referee.

Sinckler’s loss of composure came after an incident with Luke Cowan-Dickie – at the time an opponent for Exeter but now an England team-mate. “All is good,” said Cowan-Dickie. “It is all fun and jokes. Kyle is a good mate of mine, I have played with him since I was about 15. We had a bit of a chuckle when we got into camp.”

Proudfoot has revealed that contracting Covid-19 has put England's Six Nations campaign into perspective. He was forced to miss the start of the pre-championship training camp and paid tribute to the team doctor, acknowledging that not everyone who contracts the illness is in as fortunate position as him.

"Your body is not used to it, it's something you've never experienced and it gives you a little bit of a fright," said Proudfoot. "It just gets hold of you. My wife got a big fright. She had it at the same time. I had great support, and Richard Tingay, our team doctor, was fantastic.

“What I went through was trivial compared to what people in the country are going through. With people who are really getting sick and admitted to hospital – those were the people I was thinking about when I was poorly. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of support – can you imagine the people that don’t?

“It has given me a different perspective on when you come in and have the opportunity to make a difference, you give it everything you’ve got.”

Meanwhile, a decision over the British and Irish Lions tour in South Africa has been delayed and is now not expected to be made until next month. Both parties were expected to come to a decision this month but it is now more likely in March, when World Rugby will make a call on all summer tours.

Going ahead in South Africa – most likely behind closed doors – or playing the series in the UK and Ireland are the most likely contingency options. The tour could also be postponed and while Australia have offered to host the series, that is unlikely to materialise. - Guardian

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