Mako (right): 'It was not easy to get through but I think Billy (left) is very blessed to have some special people around him'
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Mako Vunipola has never been big on sympathy when dealing with brother, Billy. While others have been quick to offer an arm around the shoulder, the elder Vunipola has tended to apply foot to backside when his sibling slips into his periodic episodes of introspection.
Yet even the elder Vunipola’s granite-like features creased in consternation when his was the penultimate name read out by Jason Leonard at last month’s Lions squad announcement. While that meant the loosehead prop would be undertaking his third Lions tour, Billy, who withdrew from the 2017 squad through injury, had not made the cut. Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, recalls that the squad which had been wildly celebrating the club’s five other call-ups slipped into a stunned silence.
Saturday’s first leg of the Championship play-off final against Ealing Trailfinders has given the younger Vunipola an immediate focus while the support of his family has ensured that he has remained on an even keel. “It was not easy to get through but I think Billy is very blessed to have some special people around him like his wife and his little boy,” Vunipola said. “Even though he wants to be on that tour he understands there’s bigger things in life. He is very hard on himself. For me as a brother, you have to make sure you are there for them and make sure he’s alright. If it is one of those where if he needs an arm I will be there but more than anything he is alright looking himself now and doesn’t need as much of a kick up the a—. He is very lucky to have some special people. He is enjoying himself around the club. Whatever happens in the summer, happens. It is one of those that will take a bit of time, but he is over it and looking forward to the next challenge.”
That starts on Saturday against Ealing. The stakes could not be higher with promotion to the Premiership on line. “These are the two most important games we have had as a club for a number of years,” says Vunipola, which speaks volumes when you consider the number of Premiership and European finals that Saracens have contested. “Obviously there’s external and internal pressures, but all we can do is concentrate on what we can control on the field. Like anything if you stop and think about it too much then it is going to slow you down.”
Mako Vunipola will be appearing on his third Lions tour in succession this year
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McCall’s team start as 1-16 favourites, but Ealing gave Saracens a bloody nose in pre-season and Vunipola says they will be afforded the same respect as any of their Champions Cup final opponents. “We have spoken this week about in finals the level of intensity and physicality goes up and making sure we are prepared for that and not sitting back and seeing what happens,” Vunipola said. “That’s the thought-process throughout the last two weeks. We remember the game we played at StoneX and we know it will be a step up from previous games. We won’t underestimate them. We have got to be at the top of our game and prepared to go into battle.”
While a season in the Championship, particularly in the Covid-19 era, was not wished for in any way, it has been beneficial both for Vunipola personally, who says he is in an excellent place physically, and for the club as a whole. He highlights flanker Sean Reffell as a player whom has emerged as a star in the making this year in a league that highlights the fundamentals. “It is not just the flashy stuff but understanding that everything is built on the basics,” Vunipola said. “Never is that more apparent than in the Championship. Whichever team we face are going to have a strong set piece and are going to up for the fight physically.”
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From Ealing to the Springboks will be quite the jump, not least because the Lions will have to assemble a new scrummaging unit from scratch to take on a South African team which did a number on Vunipola and the England scrum in the 2019 World Cup final. “If I do get the opportunity, it is one I hope to take with both hands,” Vunipola said. “There’s no lingering feelings from 2019. I have learnt from that and moved on. It will always be there but for me it is a new tour and a different team playing this summer. Coming into a Lions tour there are things you have to work out having never played with some of those players. The bonus for that though is how quickly those world-class players adapt to each other and that’s probably why they are chosen.”