Mako Vunipola believes England are genuine World Cup contenders but knows he has his own work cut out to be part of next year’s global gathering in Japan.
A calf tear in October came at an inopportune time for the England and British & Irish Lions stalwart, who had to settle for being an admiring onlooker as Eddie Jones’ Red Rose revivalists emerged from a demanding November series with renewed optimism.
With Exeter’s Ben Moon – dubbed the ‘coalminer’ by Jones – staking a hefty claim to be retained for the Six Nations and Ellis Genge back in action for Leicester, Vunipola now faces a fight for the starting loosehead jersey with his place no longer looking assured.
Vunipola told The Rugby Paper: “The boys did really well in November. There was obviously a bit of talk about how previous results had gone but for me it looked like a new team out there.
“It looked like they played with freedom and you could see an identity coming as well. That was the pleasing thing and also, for me being on the outside of it, it was exciting as well because you want to be part of it and know that’s going to be a challenge.
“The gap is closing with New Zealand but it’s not just about them, you can see how every game internationally between the big teams is a proper contest.
“That’s what you want. New Zealand are still World Cup favourites because they still have that experience of being No.1 and they’re still the team to chase, but England competed well and you can see how Ireland have consistently challenged them.
“Ireland have beaten New Zealand twice in the last couple of years and shown that they are human.
“Although it’s still a very big task, England proved they can go toe-to-toe with them as well and we can improve again between now and the World Cup.”
With 51 England appearances and two Lions tours behind him, it seems highly unlikely that, fitness permitting, Jones would not restore Vunipola to his squad.
However, the 27-year-old is taking nothing for granted, particularly given the fact that his last five appearances for England coincided with losses – the final three matches of this year’s Six Nations and the first two tour matches in South Africa in June.
Instead, the Saracens man is working overtime to keep on improving in an effort to ensure every element of his game is in top order ahead of selection.
Vunipola explained: “I want to play for England as much as I can and to do that, I know I have to play well for Saracens. I’m under no illusions that I’ll have to fight for my place in the team but I’m looking forward to that and it can only push us to be better.
“Ben Moon and Alec Hepburn are good players in their own right and they came in and did unbelievably well in a team that’s going in the right direction and won – so for me it’s about achieving consistency in the set-piece and improving my all-round game.
“The more I play after my injury that will come and over the years, as I’ve got more experienced, I feel my set-piece work is getting there. But the other part is around the park and making more impacts there, which is a strength but can always be better.
“When I’m out of the game on the floor I’m just trying to improve my ability to get back in the game as quickly as possible – that and consistency around the set-piece are my two big work-ons to become the best player I can be.”
Vunipola’s route back to the England squad has been aided considerably by Joe Marler’s recent decision to quit Test rugby to spend more time with his family. While Vunipola admits his former colleague’s decision left him shocked, as a family man himself now he says he can identify with what Marler, right, was going through.
“I was surprised and taken aback by Joe’s decision,” Vunipola said. “But I also know how much he missed his family when we were away – like anyone else really.
“One of the positives of being injured is spending more time with the family and with my girlfriend and as I now have a five-month-old son, I could see his point of view.
“It was still a massive shock though because he was in his prime and playing good rugby. I’ve been with Joe since we were in the England U18s and 20s together, so we played together for nearly ten years and it’ll be strange not to have him in camp again.”
Good news for England fans is that Vunipola will not be following suit. He added: “As you get older you realise how tough it can be when you have a family and realise the sacrifices you have to keep making to be playing at the top level, but I’ve never had any doubts.
“You sometimes don’t get as much time off as other people but they’d probably rather be in my shoes and representing their country – something I love doing.”
While the Six Nations is just around the corner, the here and now dictates Vunipola must put his hand to the wheel for a Saracens side he feels can be better.
He said: “This Christmas period is where your season can be defined and even though we’ve been winning regularly, we still haven’t been doing it over the full 80 minutes.
“Playing half a game isn’t good enough when you come to the bigger games – quarter-finals and semi-finals – so we’re striving for consistency and it’s a big part of what we’re about.”
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