Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Beast yet to be unleashed

Battle of No 8s looms as highlight of tour
England coach Eddie Jones feels Billy Vunipola can be the world's best No 8. Photo / Getty Images
England coach Eddie Jones feels Billy Vunipola can be the world's best No 8. Photo / Getty Images

The Beast is yet to be released and there's only hope from England that Billy Vunipola will get back on the field during the Six Nations.

Someone has circled the March 19 away test with Ireland for the No8's return but that is done as much with optimism as certainty while Vunipola continues to heal after knee ligament surgery.

His absence with the tournament-ending injury to the experienced former captain Chris Robshaw and restricted time for Tom Wood and James Haskell, has reduced England's range of loose-forward expertise, writes Wynne Gray.

England have got strong production from Maro Itoje, Nathan Hughes and Jack Clifford but they are a rookie loose-forward trio without a bank of tests to work up an understanding and deliver a consistent damaging edge.

England supremo Eddie Jones has been forced to change his strategies to compensate for the absence of Vunipola's bludgeoning power which is the foundation for a large chunk of the side's potency.

It's been a frustrating wait for both coach and player although England have kept their unbeaten sequence on Jones' watch. The coach feels Vunipola has the talent to be the best No8 in the world and, with his injured brother Mako, can inflict crucial damage on attack.

In this part of the world, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will offer an economical "is that right?" retort and some pithy lines about "we've got a fairly useful joker who wears the same number" when the inevitable questions arrive about who is the best No8.

Hansen is in a holding pattern with his No8 and captain Kieran Read, who is set to return to Super rugby action in mid-April after surgery on a wrist injury.

Lions coach Warren Gatland is similarly stalled in his quest to compare his No8 options against the prime calibre of Vunipola for the mid-year tour to New Zealand.

Time is their ally and class is their comfort as Andy Robinson, a loose-forward for England and the Lions who coached England, Scotland and was an assistant in New Zealand on the Lions last tour in 2005, concurs.

He's been impressed by the No8 work of Josh Strauss, Jamie Heaslip and Ross Moriarty after several rounds of the Six Nations tournament but is adamant Vunipola is a key factor in the mid-year quest to beat the All Blacks.

If the Lions selections were made this week, Robinson would stamp a starting loose trio of Vunipola, Justin Tipuric from Wales and Ireland's CJ Stander.

Read in combat against Vunipola looms as one of multiple box-office treats on the Lions tour.

While Vunipola turned up his rampaging valve in Europe last year, Read took over as captain of the All Blacks as they beat Wales, retained the Bledisloe Cup and won the Rugby Championship before suffering an historic loss to Ireland.

Read's form was solid but without quite the gusto he produced a few years back. He was seen more in the middle of the park rather than with the damaging runs and offloads in the wider channels which formerly delighted spectators and troubled opponents.

Whatever the background or rationale for the change, let's hope both Read and Vunipola are in peak condition for what looms as a Raging Bull contest.

- NZ Herald

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