The sheer size. The work-rate. The leadership. Everything about England prop Mako Vunipola is immense at the moment. This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in January.
AS RELAXED as Mako Vunipola is, one idea makes him balk.
“There’s no chance I’d get in a ball pit!” the loosehead prop says after it is revealed we toyed with the idea of taking him to a soft-play area.
“I remember Brad Barritt doing one of those pictures – well, not with a ball pit but it was with a bowl of fruit – and he still gets haunted by that picture today.”
There is no savaging as severe as that from your team-mates, even if you’re a leader. And according to those who see his influence every day at Saracens, Vunipola is one of the most vocal players at the club alongside the half-backs and captain Barritt.
Despite missing all of the November Tests with England, Vunipola is also considered one of the very finest forwards in the global game. In fact, in our last issue of 2018, Rugby World contributors named him the best loosehead on the planet. Why? When you talk to those who have played with and against him, discussion inevitably turns to work-rate.
It is a key subject in the context of his journey, because not everyone rated the prop’s engine earlier in his career. It was much the same for his brother Billy.
The pair had to change perceptions, and, in truth, their natural dispositions.
“I think back to when he first started at Saracens and he had always been an unbelievable rugby player, but he had to learn how to work hard,” says former team-mate Kelly Brown, now Sarries’ academy coach. “Now Mako works unbelievably hard.
“His stats are just nuts, in terms of carries and tackles. He does all this and then he scrums on top of it. Plus, he’s an incredibly skilful player. So he reads the game in a way most other props can’t. He’s got the skills and the vision of a centre, so if you’re opposite him and it’s a one-on-one, he’s good enough to run through you. If you try to gang-tackle him, he’ll notice and pass out the back.
“And then when he hits anything it’s brutal; he is very, very powerful.”
It all sounds exceptional. Yet while Brown mentions 21 phenomenal carries in a tough, early-season win over Quins, the star himself takes a sideways look at the notion of racking up statistics.
Cocking his head slightly, Vunipola says: “You speak about the volume of carries and the work around the field, but it’s maybe about making more impact. For me, getting back into the game is a massive thing.
“Whenever I carry the ball my intent is to bust those tackles and make those line breaks. Obviously it would be nice for me to make some 50-yard breaks every game, but I know that is not a reality at the level we play at.
“It’s very difficult and I know it’s not just about me making those carries. It’s about being able to function within the team. Those carries aren’t the be-all and end-all. Hopefully my team-mates can see I’m working hard for them. And you want to make sure that you don’t do 14 carries when you could have done ten carries and those were (better).”
Something else that was levelled at Vunipola early in his career was that he needed to work at the scrummage. Semtex ball-carries were stunning but he needed to sort his ‘bread and butter’.
According to established wisdom, you only learn by loading up on reps in the scrum, which is what Vunipola has had to do in a pro career that began at Bristol and has seen him go on to represent the British & Irish Lions in six Tests. And remember, he only turned 28 in January.
One coach, who has worked with and against Vunipola at the top level, says the prop isn’t one to puff out his chest or make a scene during a scrum session. But he will grab you for a chat to clarify his objective and what to work on.
And according to one Test adversary: “Mako’s scrummaging has come on a lot. He gets in a great shape and doesn’t ‘kick his hips’ as much – that is pushing hips out so you can get more of an angle on the tighthead, to bore in.
“He doesn’t try to do it all himself, either. He is more patient now and you can see that with Saracens recently.”
The loosehead considers the changes he has gone through in the pressure pit of the scrum. “I have just got more confident with it really,” he concludes. “When I was younger, I would get a setback in a game – a penalty against me or something like that – and it would probably take me a bit longer to recover and work out what I needed to do. Now, obviously I’ve got good people around me who can help, but also I have experience of so many games, so I know what I can change and react on the go instead of waiting two or three more scrums before changing things.”
There are fewer voices calling for Vunipola to get more scrum experience under his belt these days. And he will get to renew some tasty rivalries during the upcoming Guinness Six Nations, including one with his Lions cohort, Tadhg Furlong of Ireland, in round one. Many agree that the Leinster No 3 is the pre-eminent tighthead in the game and is an integral part of what Ireland have achieved in the past few years.
Then again, no prop ever gets it their way all the time and every put-in is an examination. So in Rugby World Cup year and after missing a promising autumn with injury, these games will allow Vunipola to wrestle with the best again.
Related: Six Nations table 2019
As anyone who has taken part in a tectonic elite scrum will testify, the processes used at the fault line of the set-piece have to be spot on. Asked about how hard it is getting rhythm within a scrum, Vunipola says: “You go through it all in your head, ‘Did I do this? Yeah. Did I do that? Oh, no actually.’ That’s how you try to figure it out. It all happens quite quick. That’s where the experience helps because with it you figure things out straightaway.
“I’m lucky to have played with Jamie George for a long time (with Saracens and England), and we’ve scrummed together a lot. So if he feels like I didn’t get my right shoulder up or didn’t get my hips aligned with his, he’ll say, ‘Do this’ and we’ll work on it together.”
So what’s it like at international level, when you’re changing personnel often?
“You try to work out people’s tendencies, but they’re all high-class players in their own right and they’ll have their own way of doing stuff. We all try to read off the same hymn sheet. It’s difficult. That’s probably the hardest thing: cohesion. Because you can have the world’s best scrummagers, but if you don’t scrum as an eight it’s difficult.”
Brown, who lives near Vunipola, says the prop is a very willing host off the field – he is fond of the Tongan way, his friend says. Family is everything for him and the front door is always open. Now a parent, Vunipola can show his gentler side too. Despite sometimes lingering at training, as soon as he is home he will take seven-month-old son Jacob off partner Alex Johns’s hands.
If there is sport on TV – soccer, rugby, NFL, basketball – Vunipola will be there, remote in hand. But he helps with the chores too. Sure, he is particular about hanging up the washing a certain way or immediately cleaning and putting away used dishes. But by the same token, if Jacob is crying, he exercises patience. “More than anything I try to keep Alex happy,” he laughs. “If the kid’s all right, the kid’s all right! He’s pretty easy.”
Of course, with most children under one, the mood can change quickly. Is Jacob like his dad with regards mood swings? “Pretty much, yeah!” Vunipola reflects. “He actually is. He has a bit of a temper and I think that comes from me.”
Really? “I have a temper, yeah. I’ve got better at controlling it but the people that I’m closest to can tell. It’s the little things that set me off really. On the pitch sometimes I can lose my head, but I’m all right at getting back to focusing. I’ll just focus on the small things, like a simple task. So in the game I will go, ‘What’s my next job?’”
Internationally, the next job is Ireland in the Six Nations. And work-rate, perspective and leadership ability have all combined to ensure the prop is a must-pick for England.
It looks like 2019 will be colossal for this big fella no matter what.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in January.