Mako Vunipola - England Prop out for 2019 redemption against South Africa

Mako Vunipola didn't play for England for over a year before his recall for the Australia tour

In his first start of the Autumn Nations Series, England and Saracens prop Mako Vunipola certainly has motivation for Saturday’s game against South Africa at Twickenham Stadium.

The last time that the 31-year-old played the Springboks it was the 2019 rugby World Cup Final. In that time, much has happened for the loosehead. His club side was relegated from the Gallagher Premiership, Covid-19 hit, and he even spent some time away from the England side.

Not representing England from March 2021 to July this year, as a result Vunipola missed out on Eddie Jones’ team’s 27-26 win over South Africa last Autumn Nations Series. Having come off the bench in the games against Argentina, Japan and New Zealand, against the Boks Vunipola will start.

It is difficult not to think about that day in Yokohama. After beating the All Blacks in their semi-final, England looked a frankly terrifying prospect heading into the final. 

Early injury to Kyle Sinckler would curtail any of the initial hope that England fans had, the pack undertaking serious punishment and in the final 15 minutes Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe would cross the whitewash for South Africa to secure their 32-12 sin and the Webb Ellis Cup.

Despite a turbulent last three years, Vunipola quietly kept going about his work and now is reaping the rewards. Saying that he ‘enjoyed the journey’ of the last World Cup, the loosehead now has his sights set on France in less than a years’ time.

“Sitting in the changing room afterwards was tough,” Vunipola said. “Obviously, seeing them lift the trophy and all that, their celebrations, but sitting in the changing room after when you are there with the team, the staff and you see all the players that didn’t play and you see how they are so dejected from it, then you start thinking about all the training we did in preseason, the games we played on the way through.

“There was going to be a typhoon, so we had to move and all that stuff comes into your head. That was the hardest, and then no one really said too much to be honest. Nothing was said.

“Everyone was just sat there in silence, and that was when you realised that we missed an opportunity to be at our best, and we are probably not going to get that opportunity again.

“Nothing is set in stone, so it’s tough to take but it is also exciting. I want to try and put my hand up for the World Cup next year and this is part of that journey.”

Thinking about the path that Vunipola has been on, you cannot help but feel that a positive result on Saturday would be a form of redemption for the 31-year-old. Unlike the rest of his teammates, the Sarries stalwart has not had a chance to vanquish those daemons.

It comes at a fortuitous time too as England play southern hemisphere opposition for the last time before the Rugby World Cup next in France. Already having come up against their pool opposition in Argentina and Japan, these past two weeks have been exercises in extreme stress, even if the Bok jersey inspires painful memories.

“It does, to be honest,” Vunipola said. “You see it and you think back to it, but that’s only a glancing moment. When you’re in the game, it’s just another game.

“That game will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. Not only because of how we lost, but because of how they imposed themselves on us. It’s about this weekend now. It’s another challenge, a different challenge.

“Most of their team is probably the same and the way they play is the same, but we’re excited about what’s ahead of us. We’re looking forward to going out there and testing ourselves.”

As always, the Springboks are a physical challenge. Priding themselves on a strong set piece, Vunipola’s role will be integral at the scrum, his opposite number from the first whistle coming in the form of Frans Malherbe, Vunipola’s role not changing too much in his eyes.

“My job doesn’t really change, to be honest,” he said. “The only change would be from the start. Playing against South Africa, we know that the battle starts up front, at set piece, so for myself, scrum-time against the best scrum in international rugby.

“It’s a great challenge to face and, as players, you have a choice whether you want to walk towards that or turn away. I’m looking forward to it, but I also realise that it’s going to take an all-eight effort from myself and the boys up front.”

After last week’s draw against New Zealand, England will no doubt have confidence. Recovering from a 19-point deficit to draw with Ian Foster’s All Blacks 25-25, the side scored three tries in the last 10 minutes of the game to end the contest with a result that seemed unlikely for large periods of the game.

In the days that have followed, England have spoken about how flipping the switch like that would not have been possible in years gone by. Jonny May was one, saying that the 2019 Rugby World Cup side would have been unable to, this style of play having taken some time to get up and running and put doubt into the minds of their opposition.

“For us we have to be predictable in what we do, but also be unpredictable to them,” Vunipola said. “We have our framework in terms of how we want to attack, and within that we can call numerous things.

“When you have the ball players we are fortunate enough to have on our team, we have strike runners on the edge who can score from anywhere, you want to get them the ball and be able to make a decision and back them.

“That last 15 minutes last week showed how we can do that and that is where I said we are making a step forward this campaign. We want to try and do that again this weekend.

“In terms of playing against South Africa, people say that they just want to kick the ball and get it back, but they have strike runners themselves. I know Kolbe is not playing, but you give him the ball in five metres of space, and he will score. They have other players who can do the same.

“They will do the box kicks and all the tough stuff, but when they see an opportunity, when you have got [Willie] Le Roux at the back, he will want to get the ball in hands and make something happen. We have to be aware of what they might bring.”

England starting XV: Freddie Steward; Tommy Freeman, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (C), Jonny May; Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill, Alex Coles, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, David Ribbans, Sam Simmonds, Ben Youngs, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell