Sam Warburton believes England’s World Cup prospects will improve if Billy Vunipola is recalled in the belief that number eight demands a physical presence.
Vunipola was overlooked entirely by Steve Borthwick for the recent Six Nations amid reports that England’s head coach is not on speaking terms with the Saracen following a row that took place in Japan four years ago.
Alex Dombrandt was given Vunipola’s place in the back row but failed to impose himself and his appetite for grinding out hard yards was questioned in the wake of the record Twickenham defeat by France in round four.
“Being physically dominant in a collision sport is one of the single most important factors, especially with the way rugby is at the moment,” Asahi ambassador Warburton told the PA news agency.
“That has to be something your number eight prides himself on and Billy Vunipola adds that.
“I wouldn’t disregard Dombrandt because he’s done too much good stuff in a Harlequins shirt, but at Test level Billy Vunipola has shown more.
“Look at the best teams in the world and their number eights are key players who bring a big, physical presence: Duane Vermeulen, Ardie Savea, Gregory Alldritt and Caelan Doris.
England have four warm-up games before facing Argentina in their World Cup opener, with the debate over the identity of their fly-half set to rage all the way to France.
Owen Farrell started the final match against Ireland while Marcus Smith was handed the role of chief conductor against Italy and France. Warburton believes Farrell is the more reliable selection.
“This is not a negative against Smith because he’s an incredibly gifted player, but I’m slightly risk averse so I like players with less errors in their game,” Warburton said.
“Not being able to clean out a ruck or missing a tackle count as errors, it’s not just about the killer pass because there’s lots to a game.
“I’d go with Farrell because he’s the leader and has more strings to his bow. Smith has more from a running perspective but if you look at the bigger picture Farrell has less errors in his game so I’d go with him.”
Fourteen-man England were dispatched 29-16 in Dublin last Saturday to see Ireland emerge as worthy Grand Slam winners and cement their place at the summit of the global rankings.
As the World Cup approaches, focus will grow on their inability to progress beyond the quarter-finals in previous tournaments, but Warburton does not see that as psychological baggage for Andy Farrell’s outfit.
“When I was a player I always laughed at history and records – I always thought it had no bearing on what’s happening today. To fans it does because they look at history and records,” he said.
“This is a very different Irish team – a ruthless, well oiled machine spearheaded by two of the most competitive people I’ve ever come into contact with in Johnny Sexton and Andy Farrell.”
* Asahi are the Official Beer Partner of Rugby World Cup 2023, and will be taking fans beyond expected this summer.