MAKO VUNIPOLA has hailed front-row partner Vincent Koch as “the best tight-head in the world” following the South African’s demolition job on Leinster in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup.
While Sale Sharks’ Faf de Klerk has earned big raps during his time in England, fellow World Cup winner and Springbok Koch has impressively gone about his business without any of the same sort of fanfare
But as the cornerstone of a Sarries pack that forced Leinster into conceding eight scrum penalties, pumped-up Koch demonstrated what a quality operator he is at the Aviva Stadium.
“Tight-head is probably the most important player in the team, and he showed his importance on the weekend not only in the scrum but around the park,” said Vunipola.
“When Vincent is in that kind of mood and he’s going at teams, I honestly feel like there is no-one better in the world than him.
“When you’ve got players like around you, it does give you confidence, definitely.
“He knows that, and he knows he’s got the backing of the people around him, so when he’s able to be confident and just go out and do his thing, it’s happy days for us.”
Vunipola put in a big shift himself, making 18 tackles, on his return to the team from a month out with a back spasm.
“I’m just thankful to the S&C staff and the medical staff who’ve been amazing to enable me to get back out there and contribute. Luckily, the boys around me helped me around the park,” the Lions contender said.
“From the off, I just gave it my all and emptied the tank. Richard Barrington has done a great job for us, so I had every confidence in him coming on.
“In the game of rugby you obviously talk about head-to-head battles and winning those, and probably the only facet where you can say you are (really) going head-to-head and taking on your opposite man is in the scrum.
“We understand how massive it is to impose yourself as a pack and how much energy it gives to your team, and how much it takes away from the opposition.”
In the build-up to yesterday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92, the England loose-head Vunipola admitted he suffers from nervous excitement before big games.
“It’s not nervousness because I am worrying about stuff, it’s more just, ‘I just want to go now’.
“I just try to be as calm as possible. My body is getting a bit older now, so I have got a bit of a longer warm-up and because of that routine it helps me focus.”
As this season draws to a close, Vunipola insists Saracens’ legacy will not die with them in the Championship.
The 29-year-old is confident that another successful era is just around the corner.
“It was never about one single team or one single group of players. Before we came in, there was a strong team in there, they obviously won a Premiership and took us to another Premiership final and European final,” he pointed out.
“The Saracens team is always more important than the individuals. I have every confidence that the players coming through will take the learnings from not just this year but the year before and help the club onwards.”