Vunipola missed England’s November test series with a calf injury and with Leicester’s Ellis Genge also restored to fitness, the Saracens loosehead knows he will also have to battle Ben Moon and Alec Hepburn for the starting jersey against Six Nations Grand Slam champions Ireland in Dublin on February 2.
With Joe Marler, of Harlequins, having retired from test rugby, Vunipola is by some way England’s most experienced prop and former Lions and England prop Alex Corbisiero rates the Saracens strong man the best front row operator in the sport with his all round game setting him apart from the rest.
Mako and brother Billy, who will return next week after recovering from a third broken arm in 2018, are key to getting England over the gain line with punishing ball carrying runs. However, Mako has also become a World class scrum operator after being exposed in this key area at the start of a career that has seen him win 51 England caps and appear in six British and Irish Lions tests.
Despite a CV that includes Six Nations, Premiership and European Champions Cup winners’ medals and being voted the outstanding England player from the 2017/18 season by his team mates, Vunipola is not satisfied and his New Year resolution is a warning to every tight head in the sport heading into the World Cup in Japan.
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Vunipola, who enjoyed his first Christmas as a father following he birth of son Jacob in June, told RugbyPass: “My hope for the coming year is to stay healthy and keep improving because if you play long enough, people can work you out. That is why you have to constantly improve and get better each season and that is what my aim is.
“It is flattering to hear people saying nice things about my play but I still have a lot of improvement I can make and there are a number of players that I watch and try to learn from because they are better than me in certain areas of their game. I just want to strive to be the best player I can be.
“If I can keep playing well then I will be able to put my hand up for selection for England and everyone knows that 2019 is massive year for rugby with the World Cup, Six Nations and the club doing well in the Premiership and the Challenge Cup.”
For Vunipola, 27, the imminent return of Billy is both exciting and a relief as he has watched his younger brother undergo surgery on both arms having suffered three breaks while playing in 2018. Billy now has plates in both arms and was due to play in Saracens 25-17 win over Worcester but his surgeon asked for one more week out of the game having been unhappy with an image from the most recent x-ray of the latest injury.
“I will be nice to see him out there because I know how much he hates being on the sidelines and unable to play:” added Vunipola who has been hosting Christmas for his extended Tongan family. “Fingers crossed he comes back and stays healthy. It has been great to have all of the family over and times have changed because I used to be the single one – now I am hosting!”
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