Mako Vunipola is fired up by heartbreak in World Cup final against Springboks | England’s rugby union team

TThree years have passed but Mako Vunipola’s memories of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final are awfully clear. Things didn’t end well for England last time they faced a South African pack, and the loose-headed Saracens are looking for a more positive experience when they meet the Springbok striker again at Twickenham this Saturday.

Even the mere sight of a green jersey gives Vunipola vivid memories of Yokohama, where the springbok crush nipped England’s World Cup ambitions at the source. “This game will probably stay with me for the rest of my life, not only because we lost but also because they forced themselves on us,” said the 31-year-old, one of four changes in the starting XI for the home side after the 25-25 draw with New Zealand.

The Boks, to quote Eddie Jones, “will come through the front door this time as well”, hence the strategic front row callbacks for veteran Vunipola and clubmate Jamie George and the addition of a third lineout option from Northampton’s Alex Coles at blindside flanker . Another Saint, Tommy Freeman, is back on the wing to help England defuse larger aerial threats from the world champions.

It’s up front, however, where South Africa’s ‘bomb squad’ likes to flex its muscles and Vunipola is in no rush to rekindle the sense of deflation England suffered after the game in Japan. “Sitting in the dressing room afterwards was tough. If we did our best and they still beat us, I could live with that. But the fact that we didn’t fire a shot… that’s probably the hardest thing to think about.

“After that, you watch it again and check it, but by then it’s too late. You must have the ability to adapt on the field. We didn’t do that that day.”

South Africa will be without a familiar face or two as this weekend’s Test takes place outside of the official November Test window, but the presence of Eben Etzebeth, among others, will nonetheless guarantee another tough encounter. “He’s very physical, confrontational and tough and he’ll come all day,” said Vunipola. “We have to be prepared for that. As a pack, there are numerous players who can set the tone for them. It’s a big challenge. You can either approach them or retire and probably never play international rugby again.”

South Africa's Eben Etzebeth
South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth (right) will make for a difficult encounter at Twickenham this weekend. Photo: Backpagepix/REX/Shutterstock

Adding to the late confidence spurred by the dramatic three-try finish against the All Blacks, however, England believe their own striker talisman Maro Itoje is poised to put on a performance that will make even Etzebeth think.

“I think we’re seeing Maro’s second coming,” suggested Jones, the head coach. “He came out like a comet but like all good players there is a time when you stabilise. Things are looking up again now – we’ll see the best of Maro on Saturday.

“At his best he is the best defensive player in the world and we want to see more of that. There was a certain American basketball player, Kobe Bryant, whose focus was on being the best defensive player. Maro has it all.”

Vunipola, who has played alongside Itoje for years, also feels his teammate is still improving. “There are times when he may have pondered and tried to solve everything himself, but those are just a young player’s growing pains. He’s a formidable leader for us now…he’s the one leading the physicality forward.”

With Ellis Genge, Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Nowell all ready to come off the bench, there is clear potential for England to bounce back if they can hold out early. Jack van Poortvliet was deservedly assisted at scrum half-time despite a difficult game against the All Blacks, while Manu Tuilagi will be capped for his 50th cap.

quick start Guide

England meets South Africa


England’s 23-year-old plays South Africa in the Autumn Nations Series at Twickenham on Saturday at 5.30pm.

F Steward (Leicester Tigers); T Freeman (Northampton Saints), M Tuilagi (Sale Sharks), O Farrell (Saracens, captain), J May (Gloucester Rugby); M. Smith (Harlequins), J. van Poortvliet (Leicester Tigers); M Vunipola (Saracens), J George (Saracens), K Sinckler (Bristol Bears), M Itoje (Saracens), J Hill (Sale Sharks), A Coles (Northampton Saints), T Curry (Sale Sharks), B Vunipola (Saracens ). ).
substitute L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs), E Genge (Bristol Bears), W Stuart (Bath Rugby), D Ribbans (Northampton Saints), S Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers), H Slade (Exeter Chiefs), J Nowell (Exeter Chiefs).

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“We picked another side to neutralize their strengths and play to our strengths,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to fight and fight and fight and if we get a chance to break it, we have to take it. I’ve never seen a Springbok team not show up. That’s just part of the game.”


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