Mako Vunipola will have a key role to play in England’s bid for an historic third successive Six Nations title with head coach Eddie Jones predicting the Saracens prop is set to become one of the best players in the game.
Given that Jones is famously tough on his players, that is rare praise, particularly as Vunipola is a loose head prop. While front row forwards don’t regularly grab the headlines – unless they are being banned – Vunipola’s skills set him apart and his value to England has never been higher thanks to a series of injures and bans which have left him as the only capped loose head available to Jones.
Joe Marler, of Harlequins, is currently banned while Wasps Matt Mullan and Ellis Genge, of Leicester, are injured which means the uncapped duo of Lewis Boyce(Quins) and Alec Hepburn (Exeter) are vying for the replacement’s role for Sunday’s opening Six Nations clash with Italy in Rome.
Jones told Standard Sport; “ Mako can be one of the best players in the World – I have no doubt about it. Any loose head prop who makes 20 tackles in the game, has the ball carrying ability and his scrummaging then when you put all that together you have a super package. He is learning more about his body, how to look after himself and is maturing all the time. The sky is the limit for him.
“He is one of the those guys that other players like playing with. I know it seems funny but it makes a hell of a difference because people want to play for him and with him. Players like Mako make a big difference.”
There is real pressure on Vunipola to deliver both in the scrums and also as one of England’s main ball carriers in the loose, a role younger brother Billy would normally accept but has been ruled out of the championship campaign by a broken arm. For the elder Vunipola, this kind of pressure is nothing new as his career has already forced him to show real mental strength and an ability to deliver when under intense scrutiny.
Vunipola has won 45 England caps and played in six tests in the 2013 series win over Australia and against the All Blacks in last summer’s drawn series. In Australia his scrum technique saw him hammered in the Aussie media and he was affected by the criticism admitting; “I learnt a lot from that tour and had to grow up quickly as a front row forward because you are in the firing line. You either take that on the chin and improve or else you go into a dark place and I wanted to get better and the Lions tour to Australia is a massive highlight of my career.”
Vunipola took advice and worked hard on his scrummaging which is still a work in progress. This desire to become a better player has impressed Jason Leonard, England’s most capped player, who was a member of the World Cup winning team in 2003. He said: “ Lions tours do one or two things; they can make you or break you. It is how you come back from those set backs and Mako got a bit of criticism on his first Lions tour and worked very hard on his overall game and lifted his levels of excellence which means he is now putting in the big shifts in the scrums, the tight work and also use the ball in open play. He has the hands of three quarter being able to give and take a pass.
“Mako’s game has improved in all areas thanks to the good set up and good coaches at Sarries and there was a real difference on the last Lions tour in New Zealand compared to four years earlier in Australia. He really shone in New Zealand and was one of the star players for the Lions. He is now one of Eddie’s go-to players and he is definitely a player who is right on form and has matured into a World class player.”