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Glimpse of England whiteboard heightens speculation of Billy Vunipola return

The number eight got through 72 minutes for Saracens over the weekend.

Billy Vunipola.
Billy Vunipola.
Image: Mike Egerton

BILLY VUNIPOLA COULD be in line for a recall to England’s starting XV for this weekend’s Calcutta Cup clash against Scotland at Twickenham if a photo that emerged from the Six Nations champions’ training session today is an accurate guide to their line-up.

Two whiteboards at the side of the pitch at England’s training base in Bagshot, southwest of London, showed Vunipola at No 8 instead of Nathan Hughes.

Both Billy, playing his first game in three months, and brother Mako Vunipola, an England prop, enjoyed plenty of game time as English and European champions Saracens won 35-27 away to Newcastle in the Premiership on Sunday.

Billy started at Kingston Park, three weeks ahead of schedule, after recovering from knee ligament damage suffered in November.

He played all but the last eight minutes against Newcastle and could now feature in both of England’s final two games of the Six Nations, with a possible title-decider against Ireland in Dublin on 18 March following hot on the heels of the Scotland match.

Vunipola’s elder brother Mako also played 72 minutes against Newcastle after being released by England in a bid to gain more match time, having come off the bench midway through the second half of last weekend’s 36-15 win over Italy at Twickenham.

Other possible changes for the Triple Crown clash could see Ben Youngs restored to the role of starting scrum-half in place of Danny Care, and Jonathan Joseph back in midfield at the expense of Ben Te’o.

England coach Eddie Jones is not adverse to kidding the media, but both Vunipola brothers were included in his 24-man squad named today, although the Australian is not due to name the team to play Scotland until Thursday.

Back-row Jack Clifford has been dropped, but wing Anthony Watson, fit following a hamstring injury, was included and could be named on the bench instead of Jonny May.

England could retain the Six Nations title if they beat Scotland and Wales defeat Ireland in Cardiff on Friday.

Victory against a Scotland side who last won at Twickenham in 1983 would see England equal world champions New Zealand’s record of 18 successive Test wins by a leading or ‘tier one’ rugby union nation.

England’s 24-man squad:

Forwards: Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Jamie George (Saracens), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), James Haskell (Wasps), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Maro Itoje (Saracens), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Tom Wood (Northampton Saints).

Backs: Mike Brown (Harlequins), Danny Care (Harlequins), Elliot Daly (Wasps), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath Rugby), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby), Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers).

- © AFP, 2017

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