The 34-cap Saracens and England No 8 has paid for the unrelenting nature of season in what is a significant blow to Warren Gatland's touring Lions
The British & Irish Lions have been rocked by the news that Saracens and England No 8 Billy Vunipola has been ruled out of the Series in New Zealand with a shoulder injury. James Haskell, a former charge of Warren Gatland’s at Wasps, has been called up in his place.
There are suggestions that Vunipola had been managing the injury but that a bang during the hugely physical battle against the Exeter Chiefs on the weekend meant that further medical attention was the only way forward for the outstanding 34-cap No 8, who has only a week previously picked up a Man of the Match award for his part in Saracens reclaiming the Champions Cup.
It is a blow to the solar plexes for the Lions but it’s not a knockout blow. There are still three players in the squad who can play No 8. Taulupe Faletau, who has 66-caps and has been in imperious form for Bath in recent weeks is favourite to wear the Test shirt in New Zealand, while the rambunctious CJ Stander, the Munster No 8 who has been playing at blindside for his country with great effect, and of course, Ross Moriarty, a blindside who can happily play at No 8, and kept the returning Faletau out of the Wales side during the Six Nations.
Vunipola was favourite to pack down at the back of the scrum, and his 20st bulk, soft hands and ability to get over the gainline would have been a key attacking weapon for the Lions. A gregarious character, he talked of his desperation to be part of the Lions squad after witnessing his brother Mako play his part in a winning Lions Series in Australia in 2013.
It is now for Gatland and his coaches to rethink their game-plan, even though the All Blacks, who themselves have problems in the back-row with Jerome Kaino being nursed back from a knee-injury and Kieran Read facing a race against time to be fit for the first Test on June 25 after breaking his thumb playing for the Canterbury Crusaders in Japan last month.
As for Haskell, despite suggestions Jamie Heaslip, the two-time Lion, or John Barclay, who has been in outstanding form for Scotland and the Scarlets merited a call-up, it is a late and welcome reprieve for a player who voiced his disappointment at not being given the call, and stated that he could never be viewed as a great player, without representing the Lions. Recently turned 32, Haskell has had a injury plagued season and has not hit the heights of 12 months ago when he was England’s Player of the Series in Australia. However, the Wasp, is an upbeat character, and while he may not trouble the matchday 23, his well-worn experience – he played provincial rugby with the Highlanders for a season – ability to play anywhere across the backrow and larger-than-life character will be a boon on what will be an emotionally draining tour.