Injury-hit Saracens need a boost at back row with Billy Vunipola sidelined for four months

CHRIS JONES
Big blow | Saracens No8 Billy Vunipola needed surgery after injuring his knee against Sale: Rex Features

Saracens are set to bring in back-row reinforcements after losing England No8 Billy Vunipola for 16 weeks following knee surgery and flanker Michael Rhodes, who has been ruled out for 12 weeks after another operation on his right shoulder.

Vunipola, who underwent surgery yesterday, will miss England’s autumn series against Argentina, Australia and Samoa and will struggle to be ready in time for the Six Nations opener against Italy on February 4.

With Springbok World Cup-winning flanker Schalk Burger also out for a month, Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall admitted after the 41-13 win over Sale that he will have to look outside the squad for help, as well as calling on the production line of young talent from the club’s academy.

Vunipola, Rhodes and Burger are all excellent ball carriers, capable of breaking through the toughest of defences, and that kind of ability will be needed in the coming weeks.

Besides keeping their Premiership ambitions on track, Sarries will launch their bid for a third successive European Champions Cup title against Northampton on October 15.

Jack Clifford, who impressed in Harlequins’ 31-28 loss to Leicester, has replaced Vunipola in the England squad taking part in a three-day training camp in Oxford. Full-back Mike Brown and flanker Chris Robshaw also picked up injuries and were due to be assessed by England today.

McCall, who last season brought in Wallaby lock Will Skelton on a short-term contract after Maro Itoje and George Kruis were injured, said: “It is likely that we will have to bring somebody in. There has been a complication with Michael’s shoulder and he has had surgery and will be out for 12 weeks, while Schalk has a shoulder injury and is out for four weeks. We have some good young players who have come through the academy and we also have the ability to play Maro in the back row because we have a good stock of second rows at the moment.

“We started really well against Sale and were brilliant with our lead-up play and blew them away in that opening 10 minutes. It was nice to get a bonus point after 60 minutes and we are disappointed at some of the line breaks they made and conceding two tries.”

Owen Farrell is adamant the squad will be able to deal with the injuries, although he admitted their performances are still short of the required standard. Farrell said: “When there are high scoring games, people focus on the attack and we have to make sure our complete game gets on the pitch building into the European games.

“We are nowhere near the standard we want - you wouldn’t hope to be at this point of the season - and just moving in the right direction is key.”

London Irish lost 40-25 at home to Northampton, with another poor first-half display undermining their cause. Irish, for the third successive match, gave a big lead to the opposition, going in at the break 26-6 down. They now have a five-day turnaround before playing at Newcastle on Friday.

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