Vunipolas back to boost England's Slam hopes
England's hopes of winning a second successive Grand Slam have been given a major boost with the news that Billy and Mako Vunipola are both expected to be fit for what could be the Six Nations decider against Ireland in Dublin.
Prop Mako Vunipola is expected to return from a knee ligament injury against Italy on February 26, in a game in which Dylan Hartley is likely to be omitted from the starting XV in favour of Jamie George for the first time under head coach Eddie Jones. Owen Farrell is set to take over from Hartley as captain.
Jones is considering a number of changes following the 21-16 victory over Wales after confirming he would "experiment" against the Italians.
And he will be encouraged by the fact that Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola is now on course to return to fitness in time for the Ireland game on March 18, having initially been ruled out for the entire tournament after suffering a knee cartilage injury.
"He might get back for Ireland - he'd be pretty useful off the bench, 150kg," said Jones of the 125kg Billy Vunipola, who has emerged as one of England's key players under the Australian.
But it is the likely absence of Hartley from the starting line-up against Italy that will generate the most interest after the hooker was substituted after just 46 minutes against Wales. Hartley has been withdrawn increasingly early in November and now in both Six Nations matches.
"Maybe, I'm looking at it all, mate," said Jones when asked whether George would start against the Italians. "I want to do something a bit different against Italy. I want to play differently against them; experiment a bit in how we play… and maybe the team might be different.
"This is all about building a plan for the World Cup. It will be a bit of fun."
Asked why he had withdrawn Hartley just six minutes into the second half of such a key fixture, Jones said: "Every decision is made on the ability of the player to work. When they start to drop off - we have parameters for how quickly they get off the ground - and when they start getting slow off the ground we make a change. It's got nothing to do with anything else."
The story behind England's dramatic victory on Saturday began four years ago in the searing heat of Qatar with a Spanish exercise physiologist who had previously worked with Jose Mourinho.
Jones, then head coach of Japan, did not care much for the Gulf state, but his meeting with Alberto Mendez-Villanueva was a defining moment both for his coaching philosophy and in England's remarkable transformation since the nadir of the 2015 World Cup.
Jones returned with a new vision of how to adapt teams' training so that players would be able to withstand the most exacting periods of pressure and remain in contention to the death of Test matches even when being outplayed. This training strategy underpinned Japan's victory over South Africa at the World Cup. Now it underpins Jones's tenure with England and was critical to his side's ability to withstand the kitchen sink that Wales threw at them on Saturday, and extend their record run of victories to 16.
"We use a methodology which I've borrowed from soccer called tactical periodisation," revealed Jones. "Every day we train a specific parameter of the game. We have one day where we have a physical session and do more contacts than we would do in a game. Then we have a fast day where we try to train for at least 60pc of the session above game speed. We don't do any extra fitness. It's all done within those training sessions. Because of that we've improved our fitness enormously."
There are "four moments" of tactical periodisation: offensive organisation, the transition from defence to attack, defensive organisation and the transition from attack to defence. The aim is to help players rapidly alter their on-field behaviours according to the tactical context of the match and what unfolds in front of them.
A key barometer of England's intensity is measured by how quickly their players get back on their feet to ensure there are no holes in the defensive line. Jones says his players have improved hugely in this area since last year but remain "seven per cent" behind New Zealand.
"I think some of the blokes had a cup of tea and a scone with jam and cream before they got off the ground," Jones added. "It was terrible. Just go back and have a look at some of the early tapes and you will see it. The improvement has been enormous."
At times Wales looked in complete control, leading 13-8 at the break thanks to a superbly-executed try from Liam Williams and having dominated the third quarter to lead 16-11, putting England at the greatest risk of defeat since Jones took charge.
Even after Farrell landed his third penalty in the 71st minute to reduce the deficit to two points, an English victory still seemed improbable.
And yet when Jonathan Davies hooked his clearance kick into the hands of the grateful George Ford, England's ferocious workrate ensured they had one final shot at victory. They converted it majestically when Ford and Farrell combined to allow Elliot Daly to use his acceleration to round Alex Cuthbert.
"We're a fit side now," added Jones. "How many games out of our last 15 wins have we won in the last 20 minutes? That's not by coincidence. It's because we train to win those last 20 minutes."