He may currently not be part of Eddie Jones’s Six Nations squad, but Mako Vunipola still thinks England will go undefeated this year.
The experienced loosehead prop concedes that France “look strong” but believes key absences will make it hard for Wales to defend their title.
“England can get the Grand Slam, yes,” Vunipola told City A.M. “England always want to win everything that they play in.”
Vunipola’s injured Saracens team-mate Owen Farrell will also be absent when Jones’s men begin their campaign against Scotland on Saturday.
It means that England will be without their captain, but Vunipola is backing another club colleague whose progress he has witnessed first hand, Maro Itoje, to fill the leadership void whether he is named skipper or not.
“Maro hasn’t changed that much. He came into the squad at quite a young age and he came with the attitude of wanting to learn,” he said
“He’s quiet anyway but he’s had to evolve and become the leader he is today. As a guy he leads with his actions and his level of professionalism.
“Maro doesn’t need the captain’s tag. He’s a leader in the squad, the only thing the captaincy would add is him being able to make the final calls.
“You look at our squad and there’s leaders all over the place and he’s one of them. He leads with his actions and people follow.”
Vunipola, 31, has 67 England caps and helped them to the Grand Slam in 2016 but was one of several senior players omitted from Jones’s Six Nations squad.
His brother Billy and Leicester Tigers fly-half George Ford were also left out – although Ford earned a late call-up last week.
The Sarries stalwart is determined to win back his place in the England set-up, however, and Jones has assured him that the door to Test rugby remains open.
“I spoke with Eddie before the autumn and we spoke before this campaign as well,” he added.
“He’s made it very clear about what I need to work on to try and put myself back into contention and as you can imagine it’s my job now to go out there for Saracens and try to improve.
“I do that by helping my team-mates but I appreciate the honesty from Eddie – it’s what you want as a player. He gives you goals and you know exactly where you stand with him.”
Vunipola was part of the England squad that reached the 2019 World Cup final in Japan. One of his targets is to help them try to go one better in France next year.
“If I can do my bit for Saracens then I can put myself in contention for selection,” he said.
“I want to be involved at the next World Cup in 2023. I am at an age where I feel I can still offer something to the team and contribute and help.
“I’m still competitive enough to want to fight for that and that’s why I feel I want to be playing in England and push myself for selection for the World Cup.
“The other thing is that last time I went to a World Cup in 2019, I had so much enjoyment and the experience, even though we didn’t win, of the journey itself was something special and something I hold dear to myself.
“I want to be involved and I am excited about the group that’s coming through. They’re pushing and making it even harder to get into the squad. But you want to be involved as much as you can when you feel like you can offer something.”
Vunipola, who was part of the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa last summer, hasn’t featured for England since March, when they lost to Ireland in the last game of a miserable Six Nations campaign.
But the championship and everything that goes with playing international rugby in Europe – the travelling fans, the rivalries, the hostility – hold a special place in his heart.
“The first Six Nations I was involved in  is one of my tournament memories. It was the one where we went away [to Wales] and got pumped [30-3] in the last round,” he said.
“It didn’t end very well but I’d been involved with England for the autumn and the Six Nations made me realise how different it was.
“In the autumn everyone has their phones out and they’re just happy to watch the game. In the Six Nations you really feel the rivalry between every country.
“Stuart Lancaster was England coach at the time. He told me just before that it’s a bit different – he didn’t give me a reason why but said ‘trust me, it’s different’. And that was the case.
“There’s more on the line, there’s that rivalry between each country, every fixture matters more.”
On Saturday at Murrayfield England face Scotland for the Calcutta Cup. It’s a fixture in which Vunipola made his Six Nations debut and he was part of an England side who won north of the border last time the sides met at Murrayfield in 2020.
“In the last couple of years Scotland have shown how good a team they are,” he said.
“They’ve beaten us a bit recently and they usually get off to a good start. Obviously last year when they beat us at home [the first time since 1983] it was really disappointing but it does show the growth in that team.
“The crowd is hostile and the atmosphere is unbelievable. It will be interesting to see how the boys go this weekend. I’m looking forward to it.”
Vunipola on Tonga
Of course there are more important things than rugby and the recent tsunami and volcano in rugby-mad Tonga, where the Vunipola family have their roots, has left its mark on both the country and the sport.
“What’s happened in Tonga is devastating,” Vunipola added. “The best news is that people are OK and I just wanted to thank everyone who has helped so far with their donations.
“There are vulnerable people out there who need help and I am grateful to Saracens, Wasps and more for helping to raise funds.”
|England’s player of the tournament||Maro Itoje|