New Zealand-born prop of Tongan origin is having too much fun with the Red Rose to worry about questions over his background

Evening Standard

Mako Vunipola cannot understand why anybody should question his right to play for England.

The Saracens prop could have followed his father, Fe’ao, and six uncles and played for Tonga. He could also have chosen the world’s best team, the All Blacks, as he was born in Wellington. And Wales were another option as he came to the principality as an eight-year-old after his dad joined Pontypool. So why the Red Rose?

“We are always going to be Tongan,” replies Vunipola, 22, referring to himself and his brother, Billy, who will join him at Saracens next season. “We learned our Tongan heritage from our parents. But we are English now. It was easy to choose England. I have played in England most of my life, done the England age groups. I am happy to wear the England shirt.

“Some people will always say, ‘Why are these people playing for England?’ It doesn’t bother me. You can’t worry about that because otherwise you’d take your mind off the rugby.”

Nor does he feel his Tongan origins mean he has to try harder to convince sceptics of his commitment. “Some people say that but I don’t. I’ve just got to keep working hard, keep improving and, if the coaches have problems, I need to work on them.”

It is then that Vunipola tells me the excitement he felt when England ­forwards coach Graham Rowntree phoned him last week to tell him he was in Stuart Lancaster’s 33-man Six Nations squad.

“It was definitely a surprise when Graham rang,” he says. “To get the call up for the main squad and not just for injury cover [as during the autumn internationals] is great for me. Everything’s happened so quickly since my debut against Fiji. It has been terrific, quite surreal.”

England rugby fans experienced a similar sensation last month when they watched the crushing 38-21 triumph over the All Blacks. The victory — the first over New Zealand in nine years and the first defeat for the tourists in 21 games — was all the sweeter, coming after losses against Australia (20-14) and South Africa (16-15).

But it is a reflection of the mood head coach Lancaster has generated that Vunipola insists the All Blacks result was no surprise to the players.

“The victory was a good surprise for the nation but, as a team, we knew we had a performance in us,” he says. “In those two defeats there was less than seven points in it. We knew there was a lot more to come from us. We knew we were going in the right direction and went into the All Blacks game confident we could play well. Now people should start believing what Stuart is doing with the England team.”

The nation may not require much more convincing should Lancaster, who was initially appointed interim coach before last season’s Six Nations, win this year’s competition.

But the moment I raise the possibility of England being crowned champions, the new boy shows he has already learned to talk like a hardened international.

“We’ve obviously got great confidence after the win over New Zealand but the Six Nations is a tough competition. It’s very long and we’re not saying anything about winning it. We’re just going to take it game by game.”

So what are the special qualities that Lancaster brings as a coach?

“Stuart has put in that structure of bringing in new blood and blending it. He is very detailed, as are all the coaches in their analysis. You know what they want from you. It’s been really good, everyone’s enjoying it.”

And that has been the theme for Vunipola from the moment he stepped out on to the Twickenham turf to make his Test debut against Fiji in November. “Stuart said to me, ‘Go out there and just play a normal game.’ He told me to enjoy myself.”

Despite Lancaster’s Six Nations squad including eight players born outside these isles (left), the England coach feels no need to bang the patriotic drum during his pre-match talk.

“He doesn’t need to because we as a team know there’s a lot of hard work that goes into being an England player.

“A lot of people want to play for England. So, unless you’re ­passionate about playing for England, you’re not going to. And, while I had butterflies when I made my debut, it was easy for me to come in because I knew I had world-class players around me.”

International players also surround him at Saracens, which Vunipola credits with his rapid rise into the England ranks. Having joined from Championship side Bristol in June 2011, Vunipola’s first season at Vicarage Road was disrupted by injury but he has quickly made his mark this time round.

“The world-class players around you make you improve every day. Saracens’ professionalism has helped me improve as well.”

That professionalism meant losing weight for, as Phil Morrow, the club’s head of strength and conditioning, puts it: “He was probably carrying a bit of excess. We did a bit more work with him in terms of his conditioning programme and changed his diet so he was eating a bit better.”

Vunipola lost about 5kg but adds: “It wasn’t really just weight. I had to drop fat and put muscle on.”

For a prop, Vunipola has exceptional ball-handling skills but he knows he has other areas to focus on. “There are limits to my game, a lot of things are lacking. I have to keep my head down and keep working. With Joe Marler and Alex Corbisiero, both really good proven internationals, I’ve got to push myself and stake a claim.”

Where England’s ‘imports’ were born . . .

New Zealand

Dylan Hartley (Rotorua)

Mako Vunipola (Wellington)

Thomas Waldrom (Lower Hutt)


Tom Johnson (Dusseldorf)

Lee Dickson (Verden)


Manu Tuilagi (Fogapoa)

South Africa

Brad Barritt (Durban)


Alex Corbisiero (New York)


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