"As fit as I've ever seen him" - Steve Borthwick on the inclusion of Billy Vunipola as Saracens star nears return

Steve Borthwick has defended his decision to pick Vunipola as England's only out-and-out No.8 for the Rugby World Cup

Whilst the absence of Henry Slade from England's World Cup plans grabbed many headlines on Monday, the selection of Billy Vunipola was also a standout call made by Steve Borthwick.

The inclusion of Vunipola means the England boss has only picked one specialist No.8 in his 33-man squad despite the Saracens forward being sidelined with a knee injury since April.

However, the noises coming out of the England camp suggest Vunipola is close to a comeback and will undoubtedly need to get up to speed as quickly as possible if he is to be at his destructive best in France.

Lewis Ludlam, Ben Earl and Tom Curry can all cover at No.8 but with Alex Dombrandt, Tom Willis and Zach Mercer all overlooked for now, there will be an onus on Vuinpola to perform to his highest level.

"I think Billy is a guy who loves playing rugby, so we want him to play as much as he possibly can and he’s desperate to play as much as he possibly can," said Borthwick.

"In terms of fitness, Billy looks in great condition – as fit as I have seen him from a conditioning point of view. I am very clear about how we need to play against the opponents we will play in this tournament and that's ultimately why I made the decision to go with Billy. I think he brings a certain skill-set, different to the skill-sets of other players. That’s why I picked him.

"Billy wants to play a lot of minutes. The condition he is in looks really good and his diligence in this recovery from injury has been very impressive. He's very mature now. I think he's taken a very mature approach to his recovery, to be fit for this World Cup.

"There is no doubt that when I'm watching games now, a huge aspect is the power game. I watch teams play and you see teams that have that power have a real advantage. What you've got to be able to do is combat that."

How Borthwick shapes his back-row over the next month or so will be fascinating and also included in those plans will be Vunipola's club teammate, Ben Earl.

The England coach was full of enthusiasm for the 25-year-old's 'attacking game and athleticism' and having missed out on England's opening warm-up fixture against Wales, Earl was delighted to receive the news he would be heading to the World Cup.

"It was early, about 9am," Earl said when asked how he was told he would be going to France. "I’d just got up after a sleepless night because I wasn’t quite sure.

"The first thing I did was call my mum. She was buzzing. She was over the moon. She was straight on to BA or whoever, trying to book some flights!

"The back row was so competitive. The boys who have missed out – what players they are and what good blokes. I have to pinch myself that I’m going to the World Cup. At times in the last 18 months, it seemed like a long way off. I’ve had a bit of an up-and-down journey in terms of being in and out of the squad. Now it’s about trying to get into that team."

Earl will be hoping to get his opportunity this coming Saturday against Wales while there is the suggestion Vunipola could make his comeback at Twickenham.

England will be looking for a reaction after an underwhelming display in Cardiff last weekend as they slipped to a fourth defeat in their last six matches. Borthwick's side are now fifth favourites to win the World Cup - level with Eddie Jones' Australia - but skipper Owen Farrell believes perhaps not being spoken about as possible winners could be an advantage.

"If we go in as favourites or go in under the radar, we’ll use it to our advantage either way," he said. "We’re working away quietly. Tournament rugby is a lot about pressure. It’s bigger than anything you usually play in and there’s a lot of outside noise. We might not have as much of that, but the big thing is controlling what’s happening in camp and not worrying about the external factors which don’t really matter.

"You go into World Cups and people talk about favourites and say: ‘It’s theirs to lose’ but it doesn’t work like that. That’s not how sport works. Just look at the football World Cup when Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia. We will look forward to getting the best out of ourselves either way."