Mako Vunipola sizes up huge points to prove for Saracens and England

Prop ready to fight for Premiership play-off spot this weekend and World Cup starting place in the autumn

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The Independent Online

As all 21 stone of Mako Vunipola squeezes through the frame of the door, he confirms the wisdom of the England coach Stuart Lancaster. One can only imagine what goes through an exhausted opponent’s mind, when he turns to the sidelines with 20 minutes to go, and sees this colossus striding on to the pitch, clean kit, fresh legs and with the intention of getting his hands on the ball and inflicting damage.

But, four months out from the once-in-a-lifetime event of a home World Cup, it is not the job Vunipola wants.

“I’ve got to get away from being thought of as a super sub,” he says. “It’s nice, but I want to be playing. I want to be starting every game I can. It’s disappointing, but there is a mentality now that front rowers can’t go the whole 80 minutes and come the last 20 you need fresh legs to give you that impetus. I think that is what coaches are looking for more and more.

“But every time I come off the bench I try to prove that I can do a job, as much or even better than the guy that’s starting.”

Harlequins’ Joe Marler who, like Vunipola, is 24, is ahead of him in the pecking order for loosehead prop. But Vunipola is refreshingly honest and unusually insightful in his assessment of what he must do to move ahead of him. “I look at the players around me – Marler, Alex Corbisiero, Matt Mullan – all world class, and all different. A lot of people can tell they’re stronger in some areas than others.

“For me, they’re a bit ahead of me in the scrum, in the set-piece, but I like to get myself around the pitch and make an impact that way. The biggest thing for me is that I want to get my hands on the ball. That’s one of my strengths, definitely. It’s not for me to say, but I think opponents would say they might be more intimidated by those guys, set-piece wise, but around the pitch, perhaps more by me.”

But that is to get ahead of ourselves. First there is the matter of this weekend's match for Saracens against London Welsh, the final game of the season, which after last weekend’s shock last-minute defeat to Exeter, Saracens enter knowing that a place in the play-offs is far from a foregone conclusion.

“Last weekend it was gutting. Knowing it was our last game at Allianz Park, and we let ourselves down badly. It takes a few days to get over it.

“It will be a failure not to make the play-offs. We’ve got leaders in our team. Ally Hargreaves, Jacques Burger, they’re big voices. But the younger players like George Kruis and myself, we’re stepping up, and we’re becoming leaders as well.”

Stepping up is precisely what Vunipola must now do, if he is to make that precious No 1 jersey his own before the World Cup’s opening match, against Fiji at Twickenham four months from now.

The team’s preparation for the tournament has been far from ideal, with a near unimaginably long injury list preventing Lancaster from settling on a consistent side for any great length of time at any point over the last four years. Forward packs, and especially front fives, like consistency.

“Continuity definitely helps in a pack. Players learn how the other players move, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to work around that.”

On the more distant horizon, the same concerns plague Vunipola as they do all rugby players now, in a game where concussion has risen to become such a hugely significant issue. “You can’t help but talk about it. There are so many more cases now. Like with George North – the recurring ones, they’re the ones that scare you.”

It is something he discusses with his brother, Billy, who also plays for England and Saracens. “If you get one, two, three a season then you’re kind of thinking, ‘Is it really worth playing this game.’

“You have to think about your future after rugby. Everyone knows there’s bigger things in life than rugby. For us as players, that’s the scary thing, when you’re thinking about after rugby. But we’re players. It will always be there. You can’t hide away from it, or hide away from contact. You just have to live with it really.”

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Exeter sign Salvi after Leicester release

Premiership play-off contenders Exeter have announced the signing of Julian Salvi after agreeing a two-year contract with the Leicester flanker.

Salvi, whose deal at Welford Road has been allowed to run down, said: “Exeter is a club on the rise, and you can see from their results and performances this season that they are a formidable outfit within the Premiership and Europe.”