FEATURE INTERVIEW | Manu Vunipola
MANU Vunipola comes from a family of winners. The exploits of his cousins, Billy and Mako, are well documented while his father, Elisi, and uncle Fe’ao were Tongan internationals.
The youngest Vunipola on the professional rugby scene has grown up in the shadows of his illustrious relatives, but he is determined to make his mark on the English game. Like his superstar cousins he initially moved to Wales as a child. His father played for Caerphilly before the family relocated to Somerset, where Auckland-born Manu was schooled before joining Harrow on a scholarship ahead of getting picked up by the Saracens academy.
The young outside-half has long been touted as one of the best prospects in English rugby after a series of impressive displays for England Under 20s, while he has fronted up well for Saracens. But competition for places is intense at the club especially when you have the likes of Owen Farrell, and Alex Goode standing in your way.
As a result, Vunipola has had to be patient this season, with little game time coming his way. “Billy and Mako have been at the top of the game for a while now,” said the 21-year-old.
“To reach that level one day would be amazing for me. “I’m not too worried about winning trophies, and things that they’ve won. I’m just trying to improve every week and try to be consistent. “It starts with the team. That’s where I want to start and put my focus on. “I probably haven’t played my best rugby this season to be honest. Personally, it’s been quite a challenging season for me so far because I’ve been in and out of the team.
“I need to be more of a leader for the players around me, and to try to get the best out of them. I need to worry about doing my job to the best of my capabilities. “I’ve been working very hard on my game in training, and hopefully you’ll see a better version of me this weekend. Every game that I play is a massive opportunity to show the coaches what I can do especially this week because it’s a chance to show a truer reflection of what I can do.”
Vunipola is in the privileged position of being able to train day in day out with one of the best outside-halves on the planet in Farrell. The England and British & Irish Lions playmaker has played a key role in mentoring Vunipola who has nothing but admiration for Farrell.
“I’ve learnt so much these past couple of years off him,” he said. “I’m trying to take his competitiveness into my own game. “He’s always competing at the highest level, and he brings the people around him into his level which is what I’m trying to do. “I’m trying to work on that. It’s like having a coach on your team because he knows the game so well, and he reads the game so well.
“He’s basically coaching you as you are playing and training. He’ll put you aside and tell you how he’s feeling on certain things, or what he’s seen from certain training sessions. “That’s been huge for my development. He’s been injured for a few months which he’s taken the time to help me build my game and reflect on some of the training sessions he’s watched. “He’s given me a few markers on how to improve my game. He’s been very good to me.”
With so much strength in depth in every position at the club Vunipola feels it is vitally important he brings a point of difference to the number 10 shirt. And Vunipola is confident he can offer something different to his rivals. “It’s important I develop my own game, and offer something different,” he said. “
When I’ve got momentum I feel like my attacking game, my variety of run, kick, pass is very hard to defend. I feel like I can pick defenders off, and I feel like I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. “I guess it’s attack. When I get my hands on the ball, I can put people into space which my passing, little chips, little grubbers, and cross-field kicks.
“I feel like I can manipulate defences playing around with my run, kick, pass game. I also love the pressure of goal kicking which is also something I admire Faz (Owen Farrell) for. “As a kicker you’ve got to love those pressure moments. As a kid I dreamed of being in those high-pressure moments so I can only embrace it and enjoy it because that’s the place I’ve always wanted to be in.”