Billy Vunipola out of the Lions tour with a shoulder injury and his replacement has been called in
The British and Irish Lions have been hit with an enormous blow just a week ahead of leaving for New Zealand with the news that the Saracens No 8, Billy Vunipola, has been forced to withdraw with a shoulder injury.
Wasps’ James Haskell has been called into the squad but will not join the party until the eve of departure as he is involved in next weekend’s Aviva Premiership final against Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham.
The Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, is used to dealing with the vagaries and misfortunes of injury on this his third Lions tour but this setback will hit him hard. Vunipola has grown in stature over the last 12 months to the extent that the England back-row forward was one of the players who would readily go toe-to-toe in the reckoning against anyone the All Blacks might field against him, including the incumbent No 8, Kieran Read.
The highly-regarded New Zealand captain is recovering from injury himself but is primed to return to action in time for the three-Test series that begins in Auckland on June 24. Read is a different type of player, more mobile, more dynamic, more visible in the wide open spaces but there is little doubt that in recent times the impact on a game that Billy Vunipola has is the equal at least of anything that Read might offer.
Vunipola has worked hard on his conditioning and is more athletic and involved as a result. Nonetheless, his prime asset is his ability to make yardage by churning forward and taking would-be tacklers with him. What has changed is that he is able to do so more often and for more sustained periods.
The Saracen has been to the forefront of England’s revival under Eddie Jones, drawing more from himself under the sympathetic guidance of the Australian who has given him the simple instruction “to be himself”. Jones has also made him vice-captain and the 24-year-old has grown in stature accordingly. He has taken on board the enhanced responsibility and made better decisions on the field.
Vunipola has been a fundamental part of the Saracens side that succeeded in claiming back-to-back European Champions Cup titles when beating Clermont Auvergne at Murrayfield last weekend. But even the powerhouse No 8 was unable to prevent Exeter Chiefs from coming from behind to claim a dramatic 18-16 victory at Sandy Park on Saturday to go through to the final of the Aviva Premiership on Saturday and stymie Saracens’ hopes of a back-to-back double Double.
Vunipola could be seen nursing his shoulder at various junctures during the match, one in which he was subjected to a ferocious physical examination, and has paid the price for such commitment to the cause.
Vunipola is the first major casualty of the Lions campaign. The Leicester scrum-half, Ben Youngs, withdrew on May 6 on compassionate grounds following news that his sister-in-law, Tiffany, married to Leicester hooker Tom, was suffering from terminal cancer. Ben Youngs has been replaced by Scotland No 9 Greig Laidlaw.
This, though, is on an entirely different order. Such has been Vunipola’s form he was seen as instrumental to the outside chances of a Lions success. His absence puts a severe dent in their prospects as well as their resources.
In the first instance, it is a straight leg-up for Vunipola’s cousin, the Wales and Bath No 8 Toby Faletau, who has been in terrific shape over recent weeks following a lengthy lay-off with injury. But Gatland would have been tempted to find space for both players in his back row.
One man’s despair is another’s opportunity and Haskell, who thought his chance to wear the famous red short of the Lions had passed him by, will join up with the party next Sunday charged and ready to go.
“It is really disappointing for Billy and we know how much he was looking forward to joining the squad,” said Gatland. “He has been carrying an injury and feels he wouldn’t be able to contribute fully to the tour and needs further medical treatment. We really appreciate his honesty in making this decision and wish him luck with his recovery. We have called up James to the squad, we wish him all the best next weekend and look forward to welcoming him into camp before we depart.”
The British & Irish Lions squad convened at Carton House near Dublin on Sunday evening with 30 players in attendance. Routine medical screening will be conducted over the next 24 hours.