Vunipola closes in on Test start after playing key role for Lions

SARACENS prop Mako Vunipola looks set to complete a meteoric 10-month rise to prominence and be handed a starting berth for the British and Irish Lions in their first Test against Australia in Brisbane next weekend.

The 22-year-old only made his first Aviva Premiership appearance in September, but a whirlwind season caught the eye of Lions head coach Warren Gatland.

Vunipola, with three appearances already on the Lions tour, has been named at loosehead for Saturday’s match with New South Wales Waratahs and is expected to keep the No1 shirt against the Wallabies ahead of team-mates Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant. Though the former Bristol forward is taking nothing for granted.

“The coaches seem happy with what I am doing so far but, there is still room to improve and I need a good performance on Saturday,” said Vunipola.

“Every chance you get to pull on the red Lions jersey is a chance to play for the Test side.

“This game on Saturday is no different you just go out there and play the same game.

“Working with Graham Rowntree [forwards coach] has been helpful here, he has been a mentor for me since I was 18, and being out here also with class players you can’t help but learn off them.”

No-one has made more tackles on the tour, 23, than Vunipola, who will start in the front row alongside Tom Youngs and Adam Jones.

Centres Brian O’Driscoll and Manu Tuilagi miss out with groin and shoulder injuries respectively, while wing George North has a tight hamstring, so Simon Zebo is handed his first Lions start. Jonny Sexton is fit to start at fly-half.

LIONS LINE-UP

Team to play New South Wales Waratahs

Halfpenny, Maitland, Davies, Roberts, Zebo, Sexton, Phillips; Vunipola, T Youngs, A Jones, A-W Jones, O’Connell, Croft, Warburton, Heaslip

Replacements: Hibbard, Corbisiero, Cole, Parling, Lydiate, B Youngs, Farrell, Kearney