Rugby World Cup 2019: Why England are risking Billy Vunipola with four warm-up game starts

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England are willing to risk starting Billy Vunipola throughout the build-up to the Rugby World Cup in the belief that he is at his most effective when playing regularly.

Vunipola is the only member of Eddie Jones’ 31-man squad who will have started all four Tests this summer after the Saracens number eight was retained for Friday night’s send-off against Italy in Newcastle.

Given the extensive injury list that has scarred his recent career, continually sending one of Jones’ most influential players into action during a series of warm-up games could be viewed as a gamble.

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Vunipola and his older brother Mako, who is recovering from a hamstring injury, are the main source of ball-carrying momentum and their fitness is key to English hopes of lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy.

Forwards coach Steve Borthwick insists that banking as many match minutes as possible is crucial for the 26-year-old of Tongan heritage, who broke his arm three times in 2018.

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“Billy absolutely wants to play. He’s a player who thrives on playing – that is how you get the best out of him,” Borthwick said.

“He loves playing the game and doesn’t want to miss any. Look at the back row – we have had some knocks and bruises. It is about what is right for each player.”

Vunipola’s Saracens team-mate Owen Farrell, who will lead England out at St James’ Park, shares Borthwick’s view.

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