Mako Vunipola will face an intensely physical test of his improved scrum power against struggling South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday and believes New Zealand’s loss to Ireland proves that nothing can be taken for granted in international rugby.
With the All Blacks world record 18 successive wins ending in Chicago, England run out against the Springboks on a ten game unbeaten run and face a team supposedly in turmoil. The Springboks were hammered 57-15 by New Zealand just before they headed to Europe and with coach Allister Coetzee under intense pressure, England are favourites to register a first win over the Springboks since 2006.
That sequence of failure involves 11 defeats and a draw with Vunipola’s only previous clash with the Springboks coming as a replacement in the 15-16 defeat in 2012.
While Vunipola has won 35 England caps, 25 have come as a replacement, although he has now moved ahead of Harlequins Joe Marler to become the first choice loose head. The 25-year-old said:” You cannot take anything for granted in test match rugby and no one is thinking about us being on a winning streak.
“I don’t buy into the idea that the South African team is in trouble and we know that they are going to turn up on Saturday with their best side and we will prepare for the worst. We are starting again as a team and everyone is excited about the challenges ahead and the pressure is on us to quickly get up to test match speed otherwise we will get turned over. “
The Saracens ethos and unrelenting work ethic that brought the club a Premiership and European Champions Cup double last season, was set in stone by former director of rugby Brendan Venter and while the club baulked at the accusation that they were, in effect, London South Africa, it did not stop them fielding nine South Africans when they famously defeated the Springboks 24-23 at Wembley in 2009. On that basis, Sarries have a better recent record against the Springboks than England.
Men like World Cup winning Springbok captains Francois Pienaar and John Smit along with Schalk Brits, Alistair Hargreaves, Ernst Joubert, Neil de Kock, Petrus Du Plessis, Michael Rhodes and Schalk Burger have ensured Sarries have retained a strong South African influence with Vincent Koch, the latest arrival, set to line up against Vunipola in the front row for the Springboks at some point on Saturday. Tight head prop Koch has been getting to know his new team mates having been the latest Stormers Super rugby player to swap the magnificent panorama of Cape Town for Barnet.
“Vincent has been with us for the last month and fingers crossed we both get picked and it will be great to catch up after the match;”said Vunipola. “Obviously, what strikes you is the size of the South African players, guys like Schalk (Burger) and Vincent(Koch), but they also have decent skills as well. Off the field, the South African culture is very family orientated and they always have time for you, but when it comes to game time then everything changes, they are very focussed and that comes across strongly.”
Mako, whose father captained Tonga and brother Billy is the England No8, measures his own playing form against the number of emails and Facebook messages from his Australian based aunties, who are never slow in picking up areas where he can improve. Significantly, the number of messages has tailed off in recent months, suggesting his form has gone down well with the female members of his wider family and Mako added:” I haven’t had that many messages at all – maybe I should check if they are still friends with me on Facebook!
“I know that even though things have gone well, they will still be telling me to keep working hard. It has been nice to get some good media reports after receiving some stick over the years, but you cannot spend too much time on that kind of thing and the pressure is on me to be consistent every time I play.”
*Mako Vunipola was speaking as part of Sky Sports partnership with England Rugby. Sky Sports will show all four Old Mutual Wealth Series matches exclusively live.
As seen in the Evening Standard