- Mako Vunipola confident following outstanding season
- Saracen praises Jamie George and loosehead colleagues
Front-row forwards must get used to their endeavours going unsung – it seems to go with the territory of the sport.
Plugging away all afternoon so the prettier performers can prance around, they are the piano pushers. Headline-hogging, Hollywood backs are the piano players. On the whole, that is the way things work.
The professional era, and its heightened emphasis on athleticism, has skewed this truism slightly. As teams aspire to an all-court attacking game, those in pack have to contribute around the park. Even so, the sight of a prop careering into open space or standing at first receiver to fling out something ambitious always tends to raise a smile.
Throughout his time in rugby, Mako Vunipola has flouted convention and consequently thrilled spectators. England Under 18 supremo John Fletcher still raves about his handling. For both club and country, his appearances always include crowd-rousing rumbles and robust tackling. Watching Vunipola senior bound through skills drills is a treat. Very often he is beaming, exuding infectious enjoyment.
But the 24 year-old deserves deadly serious respect for his efforts over the past season. Knee surgery last May meant he missed the summer tour to New Zealand and only returned to the Saracens first team at the end of November. Since then, he spearheaded a surge to the Aviva Premiership title with 14 appearances. While Mark McCall’s men went down 13-9 to Clermont in the European Champions Cup semi-final, their loosehead prop was outstanding.
Two years after touring Australia with the British and Irish Lions, Vunipola is nearing another career-defining experience – a home Rugby World Cup – and feels in pretty decent fettle.
“Winning the Premiership for us as a squad was a great memory,” he explains. “And it was special for me personally, given it had been a tough season.
“Being out with injury at the start of the year – watching the boys without being able to do anything – was one of the hardest periods I’ve been through in my career so far. To then come in and get a good run of games felt awesome.
“I’m coming into this year a lot more confident. As well as that, having been injured, you approach things with a different perspective. You know every game could be your last. I think I’m just enjoying my rugby a bit more, and hopefully that’s showed out on the pitch.”
In days gone by, Vunipola’s efforts in the loose were tempered by fragility at set-piece. Times change. He admits that the new engagement laws – with the chance to “get into a better position earlier” – suit him nicely and the Saracens eight often resembled a cohesive juggernaut.
Vunipola says the aim to compete up front with the best in Europe was a big spur and is not shy of underlining how his success is a product of collective accuracy. One man extremely close to him in that regard has been Jamie George, and not just when binding up for scrums. The pair are good friends and even linked for Chris Wyles’ try in the Premiership decider against Bath Rugby at Twickenham, Vunipola calmly throwing a 10-metre spin pass to the hooker, who unselfishly fed the scorer.
Both Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree have name-checked George as someone who is impressing during the current exhaustive training camp. Extra throwing on mornings off and huge graft in the fitness sessions caught the eye before England’s 45-man group crossed the Atlantic to Denver. A smiling Vunipola is chuffed for his mate would not be surprised in the slightest if George makes the final 31.
Finally some headaches Stuart Lancaster will have wanted with the performances of mako vunipola and Jamie George today!— Ben Kay (@BenKay5) May 30, 2015
“He’s been awesome. He’s probably been unlucky to be behind two world-class players at Sarries in Schala [Schalk Brits] and John Smit, but he had his chance this year.
“[In England camp], he’s demonstrated to everyone what he’s been doing all the time for us. I’m delighted for him and hopefully he can kick-on and continue to do himself proud. In the first four weeks at Pennyhill, he’s certainly been looking good.”
As far as Vunipola’s own prospects are concerned, he is part of a world-leading stable of looseheads. That is not an inane exaggeration. Joe Marler has now started 29 of England’s last 31 Tests, wavering between rock-solid and destructive opposite all rivals. Alex Corbisiero’s unfortunate injuries have not diminished a well-earned reputation. Unassuming Wasp Mullan was one of the Premiership’s consistently excellent performers.
Despite featuring in every fixture of the recent RBS 6 Nations, Vunipola has only worn the number one shirt on three occasions in 20 England appearances, and not since 16 months back when Italy were thrashed 52-11 in Rome – a match in which he scored one of his side’s seven tries. If there is any frustration, he masks it with the promise “to impress at every possible opportunity, whether that is in training or off the bench.”
Returning to his pursuit of a World Cup place, Vunipola’s sense of humour laces an interesting point on the constructive camaraderie in Lancaster’s party.
“We’re all different characters. Marler’s out there, Corbs is an awesome rapper but a good guy too and then Matty Mullan is fairly quiet but also a great player.
“We all look after each other, train as hard as we can and help each other out if possible. The world-class mentality is to push each other’s games and it’s going to be hard work to get into that squad.”
And as for Rowntree, then man who will be directing England’s forward approach?
“He’s hard to read, Wig is,” Vunipola grins.
“But he does create an environment that is perfect for hard work. He knows when it’s time for a laugh but when it’s time to knuckle down he’s deadly serious.
“We enjoy working with him and I hope he enjoys working with us.”