As a member of an established Tongan rugby dynasty, Mako Vunipola has made his own mark on the game and along with brother Billy signed a multi-year contract extension with Saracens in April 2015. Mako grew into Test level by playing off the bench in seven consecutive matches for England before starting against Italy in March 2013.
He had stepped up for his Test debut against Fiji in November 2012 after making only 15 Premiership appearances. Mako replaced Joe Marler after 46 minutes of the game that brought a 54-12 victory.
Seven months later and with nine Test caps, he made his British & Irish Lions debut against the Barbarians in Hong Kong and completed a remarkable rise to prominence by playing off the bench in the two victories over Australia at Brisbane and Sydney and starting the second Test in Melbourne. He won his fourth Lions cap in the first Test against New Zealand at Auckland last June and also started the other two matches against the All Blacks that brought a 24-21 victory at Wellington and a 15-15 draw at Eden Park. On his return to the England team, he became the Old Mutual Wealth Man of the Match for his subtle offloads, tackling and tight play in the 21-8 win over Argentina at Twickenham this November.
His maiden Test against Italy in March 2014 was the first by an England prop in 49 Tests since Dan Cole’s against Ireland in February 2010. He was also an important link man in Jack Nowell’s try against Scotland at the start of the 2016 RBS 6 Nations Championship. His deft pass to Owen Farrell created space and an overlap. Mako appeared in all five games in the tournament and started the match against France that completed the Grand Slam.
He also wore the No. 1 shirt in all three summer Tests in Australia last year, was unstinting in the loose, made 19 tackles in Melbourne and 15 in Sydney and helped to ensure that England’s scrummaging unit stayed on top. He ran a great line in the build up to Dan Cole’s try in the final Test. After starting all four matches in the 2016 Old Mutual Wealth Series he sustained a knee ligament injury last December that ruled him out until his return off the bench against Italy in February.
Mako signed for Saracens, the Premiership champions at the time, from Bristol Rugby in readiness for 2011/12, also played on loan for Bedford Blues and was elevated to the England Saxons squad in 2012.
He appeared for England U18 alongside his brother Viliami, better known as “Billy”, and qualified for England on residency, having been born in Wellington, New Zealand. He has now spent more than 17 years here. Their father Fe’ao, a hooker, emigrated to Wales to play for Pontypool in 1998 and won 32 caps for Tonga, including appearances in the 1995 and 1999 RWC. Remarkably, six of Mako’s uncles and his grandfather represented their native country. Fe’ao was head coach of High Wycombe and then Marlow.
Mako, who has studied Business and Management at the Open University, was a member of the Bristol Rugby Academy and spent time on loan to Clifton. He was educated at West Monmouth School, Castle School in Bristol and Millfield, having first played when nine at Griffithstown Junior School, near Pontypool before moving on to Newport High School. He said: “I played anywhere I wanted when I was younger but I always knew I would end up in the front row.”
His two years in the England U18 side included tours of Argentina and South Africa with the squad but his outstanding rugby memory in his formative years was beating France 18-0 in the 2008 Six Nations Festival in Cork. Mako added: “We dominated their pack and our backs played great running rugby. It made winning even better because we prevented them from scoring.”
He enjoyed a stunning season in 2010/11 by sharing in the England U20 Grand Slam and their impressive run to the Junior World Championship final. In all, he played 12 times, including matches against Wales, Italy, France, together with Ireland and Scotland, against whom he scored tries. A broken metatarsal, following by a hamstring tear, restricted him to eight Premiership games in his debut season for Saracens but during Mako’s lay-offs Saracens fitness coach Craig McFarlane reduced his body fat percentage while increasing his strength.
Mako has now appeared in 85 Premiership games and scored ten tries for Saracens, shared in Premiership final victories over Bath and Exeter Chiefs in 2015 and 2016 and shared in the club’s double European Challenge Cup success. He also made 86 tackles during the 2016 European triumph, the most by any forward in the competition that season.
5 points – 1T
2012 Fj(R), A(R), SA(R), NZ(R) 2013 S(R), I(R), F(R), It, W(R), A 2014 F(R), S(R), I(R), W(R), It 2015 W(R), It(R), I(R), S(R), F(R), F, F(R), I(R) World Cup – Fj(R), W(R), A(R), U 2016 S(R), It, I(R), W(R), F, A(1,2,3), SA, Fj, Arg, A 2017 It(R), S(R), I(R), Arg, A 2018 It, W
Lions: 2013 A (1R, 2, 3R) 2017 NZ(1,2,3)
Last updated: 12 February 2018