Mako Vunipola used to dream about rampaging around in an All Black jersey causing the kind of mayhem that made Jonah Lomu his hero.
It was billed as the clash of the World’s top two teams but the November 10 meeting at Twickenham will now see New Zealand, still the outstanding team in the sport, taking on an England side that has dropped down to No4 after five successive defeats that left head coach Eddie Jones under severe pressure.
Vunipola, who has won 51 caps and played in six Lions tests, missed England’s third test win over South Africa in June which ended that run of defeats to be present for the birth of his son Jacob. It means that the player many believe is the best loose head prop in World rugby has a personal test record that shows he has lost his last five England matches.
Although England finally ended their barren run, they still lost the series 2-1 to the Springboks who will be the first of November’s four opponents at Twickenham on November 3 followed by New Zealand, Japan and Australia. With the World Cup just over a year away, Vunipola and his England team mates have to prove that Jones’s squad has not peaked too early and can still mount a viable bid for the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan.
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Vunipola has already enjoyed two wins and draw against the All Blacks wearing the white of England the red of the British and Irish Lions. The Lions drawn series in New Zealand last summer allowed him to add another win over the All Blacks to the one he registered at Twickenham in 2012.
Having been born in Wellington, New Zealand and with a number of his extended family still it the city, any match with the All Blacks is special for Vunipola, who was inspired by Lomu’s extraordinary talents. He said: “When I was growing up I used to watch the All Blacks and be in love with them, mostly because of Jonah Lomu.”
“I always wanted to be him because he was my hero and I was born in New Zealand but that changed when I was growing up in the UK playing rugby here. It’s still weird to think back to those days when I used to cheer for the All Blacks.
“When I got to play against the All Blacks in New Zealand it showed that when you perform to the best of your ability you have a chance and while the All Blacks can seem invincible – at times they do play some great rugby and you feel under the cosh – the tour gave us real confidence.
“However, we are under no illusions because they are No1 in the World for a reason and have been there for a long time. Now it is up to us to really challenge them and England are always confident playing at Twickenham and believe in what we are doing and the direction the team is going. The November schedule of tests is great and we are not underestimating any of the teams. We will give them the respect they deserve but we are an England team that wants to fight to get up to where we belong.
“We are really excited about the matchup with New Zealand and while we wanted to have better results last season, the great thing about rugby is you get another chance to right some wrongs.”
Besides helping England’s cause, Vunipola wants to help Saracens retain their English Premiership title and become Europe’s top team again by reclaiming the Champions Cup which Leinster won so convincingly last season. While he appeared in 12 tests in as many months from June last year and was also a key figure in the Saracens team, Vunipola insists he was not running on empty by the end of the season. “The toughest bit of last season was when the club results weren’t going well and mentally it was hard to keep up all the time” added the 27-year-old.
“There was no point where I felt it was wearing me down but it is physically tough. I like to play and hate missing out on games so it is a bit of a double-edged sword.
“If the club asks me if I want to play then nine times out of ten I will say yes and when I feel I need a break then they are very good. The Champions Cup gets stronger every season and Leinster are in the lead which means everyone else has to play catch up. We want to be back up there in Europe.
“There is a lot of excitement when you look forward to all that is coming up, including the World Cup. With Saracens there is the chance to defend our Premiership title while also pushing for another Champions Cup.”
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