Modern prop Vunipola striving to improve

Date published: November 22 2016

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Mako Vunipola has shown on numerous occasions this season that he is far from your average prop when it comes to the threat he poses in the loose.

The Saracens prop is enjoying his best campaign to date, putting himself in the frame for a starting spot with the British and Irish Lions in the process.

Those offloads and impressive passes don’t go unnoticed, although no one is suggesting a position switch, least of all Vunipola himself.

He might give off the impression sometimes of a half-back stuck in a front-rower’s body but Vunipola has settled in as England’s starting loosehead after a prolonged battle with Joe Marler.

“I’m a frustrated prop really,” Vunipola admitted.

“I like getting the ball in my hands like I said and being able to use those skills, and if the pass is a better option than running then I am going to try and do that.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a frustrated fly-half. Props are judged on their bread and butter, which is the set-piece.”

Vunipola work in the scrum has unquestionably improved but the blockbuster carries and offloads he makes are the reason the softly-spoken Saracen is leaping out off the video tape more than usual this season.

The Premiership Player of the Month for October in his own opinion however still has plenty to work on, most of all in defence.

“It’s obviously going well at the moment, but Joe is a good player in his own right and I think you underestimate how good his skills are, and how good a ball carrier he is, and probably just exaggerate too much about me,” he explains.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, I know there are a few areas I need to improve in, defence being one of them. Trying to do my all to get back in the line and defend for the team as much as I can and make some dominant hits.

“But for us it’s great that we can bounce off each other and try and help each other as much as we can.”

Vunipola is likely to be joined in a race for a starting spot with the Lions in New Zealand again by Marler but also Ireland’s Jack McGrath.

Whether current England assistant coach Steve Borthwick is part of the Lions set-up remains to be seen, but speculation over his appointment to Warren Gatland’s backroom staff continues to grow.

Vunipola played alongside Borthwick at Saracens, when he says the signs were already there that the former England captain would go on to be a successful coach, a conclusion drawn from Borthwick’s leadership on the field and his focus off it on the smaller details.

That latter trait Vunipola now believes is having a major impact on his personal development.

“He picks up on anything. From my job as a lifter, you think you have a great lift but he will pick up on where your feet are positioned. Even the smallest like things make a massive difference for him,” said Vunipola.

“He is all about getting the basics right first and the rest will come along with it. It is the way he trains too, he is always bringing in new ways of making us better lifters, better jumpers.

“In Australia he had hookers throwing half-way up the beach, something you don’t see that often, but he is aways thinking.

“It was obvious he was going to be a great coach. He just didn’t know whether he wanted to be a coach.

“For me as a player he made it very easy to go out and do my role and he has taken that into his coaching. He is a great leader and when he talks people listen. That is not bad trait to have as a coach.”

Vunipola may well be reunited in England’s tight five by club team-mate George Kruis against Argentina, following the disciplinary hearing on Monday which led to Joe Launchbury being suspended for two weeks.

Kruis according to Borthwick is in the frame for selection for this weekend, with the England coach praising the speed of the Saracens lock’s comeback from ankle surgery as a sign of his diligence and character.

by Ben Coles

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