Steve Borthwick believes the battle for the No.8 shirt is heating up with Billy Vunipola edging closer to full fitness at England’s first 2023 Rugby World Cup preparation camp.
The 68-cap international has joined the squad ahead of his Saracens teammates to continue his recovery from a knee injury, while Alex Dombrandt and Zach Mercer are also training at Pennyhill Park.
The trio are expected to be joined by back row stars from Gallagher Premiership finalists Saracens and Sale Sharks, as well as semi-finalists Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers, in the coming weeks.
“That back row, we’ve got some competition there,” Borthwick said.
“From a coaching point of view, it’s exciting to coach players of that quality.
“Billy is doing really well. I have been impressed by not only how hard he is working when he is training and rehabbing but everything he is doing away from that as well.
“He is certainly part of the plans as we go forward. We’ve got a group of players that is very competitive and a number of players competing to be part of the 33 players that go to the World Cup.
“That’s really exciting from my point of view, and I’m looking forward to the point when Billy is back on the grass.”
Borthwick believes Vunipola is on track to return by August while Zach Mercer’s return to the fold has also boosted the back row ranks.
The Gloucester-bound forward last represented his country in 2018 but is available for selection due to his impending return to England from Montpellier.
Borthwick said: “Zach and I have spoken many times over these last few months.
“I’ve been watching his games and giving feedback, and Richard Hill and all our backroom staff have also been involved with all our back rowers.
“Zach is really ambitious about being part of the England team, and that’s impressed me.
“I think his point of difference quite is the way he has to find space and carry through big defenders.”
Borthwick will announce his 33-player squad for the World Cup on August 7, with the tournament starting on September 8.
One player who will not be there is Sam Simmonds after the Exeter Chiefs star ruled himself out for the tournament.
Borthwick added: “Sam and I spoke a week or so ago.
“Sam talked to me about personal circumstances, a personal situation and then how he thought and came to this decision.
“From my point of view, I respect that personal situation, and why he’s made the decision he has.
“Every player is within their rights to make the best decisions for their circumstances.
“What I would say is I have the great privilege now of working with a group of people who are desperate to be part of this World Cup and desperate to represent England.”