NEWCASTLE – England coach Eddie Jones tempered his satisfaction with a 37-0 win over Italy on Friday with the news that prop Mako Vunipola and winger Jack Nowell look set to miss at least the first two games of the Rugby World Cup as they battle back from injury.
The massively influential Vunipola played less than 20 minutes of the win over Ireland two weeks ago before feeling pain in the hamstring that detached from the bone while he was playing for Saracens in the European Champions Cup final May.
After Friday’s match Jones said: “Mako definitely won’t be (fit to play in the first two matches) but we feel that he’ll be right possibly for game three or game four in the pool stage.
“He just had a little scar tissue which was impairing his movement. But that’s all been fixed. He’s progressing really well now. He’s a very important player and we are very confident that he will make a very important contribution for us.”
England start with two games in five days against Tonga and the United States before taking on Argentina and France.
The good news for Jones is that in the absence of Vunipola, loosehead Ellis Genge was outstanding after coming off the bench after 33 minutes of Friday’s game.
Jones said winger Nowell, who missed all the warm-up games, was probably in a similar position as he battles back from an ankle injury suffered in the Premiership final in May – his recovery set back a little last week by appendicitis.
“He should be right again around the same time as Mako,” said the England coach.
Overall, however, the squad will travel to Japan on Sunday in decent injury shape and on a high after running in four second-half tries having battled to a 9-0 halftime lead.
“That’s a great dress rehearsal for the World Cup – we learned a lot in the first half and I really enjoyed how the players solved the problems in the second and played some good rugby,” Jones told reporters.
“We were too loose with the ball in the first half, offloading in impossible situations, and in the second we tidied it up.”
Looking at the team’s wins over Wales, Ireland and Italy, and close defeat by Wales, he added: “We’ve had a good period of time over the last few weeks and we’ve learned a bit.
“We’re in a good position but we need to keep improving. It pleased me how strong we finished tonight and we didn’t pick up any major injuries, so I’m pretty happy.”
Surprisingly, so was his opposite number Conor O’Shea, despite Italy falling to a 26th defeat by England and failing to score a point against them for the first time.
“You look at the scoreline and it’s tough to take. Sometimes in life you get strange results and that’s what I feel at the moment and there is a lot of good stuff that we can carry forward,” he said.
“The number of times we were close to the line but couldn’t get that score that would have given us new energy. We gave everything without any luck.
“We know we have an outstanding squad but we’re disappointed because if you look at the scoreline you won’t get credit for some of the stuff we did. Sometimes you’re angry – but I’m not angry,” added O’Shea, whose team have lost to England, Ireland and France but easily beat Russia in their preparations.
O’Shea, former coach of London team Harlequins, was also full of praise for England. “The power that they have – and with players to come back – they are a pretty formidable side now,” he said.
“If anyone beats them, they’ll win the World Cup.”