Mako Vunipola is in line to start for the British & Irish Lions in Saturday’s second Test against South Africa after an eye-catching cameo in last Saturday’s victory over the Springboks in the series opener.
Vunipola was initially omitted from the 23-man squad for the 22-17 triumph but was called on to the bench last Friday following a shoulder injury to Wyn Jones. Rory Sutherland was promoted to the starting XV but struggled on his Lions Test debut whereas Vunipola added ballast to the scrum after coming on in the 56th minute.
The 30-year-old started all three Lions Tests in New Zealand in 2017 but Warren Gatland has revealed how he considered Vunipola to be lacking in fitness when he joined up with the squad following Saracens’ truncated season in the Championship. Vunipola also endured an below-par Six Nations campaign with England but Gatland also explained how he set about tweaking the loosehead prop’s scrummaging technique and is expected to hand him his fifth Lions Test start when he names his team on Tuesday.
“Fitness is something I’ve always had to try and keep on top of since I started really,” said Vunipola. “It was obviously a step up, coming into the Lions camp having not been in for the first week of Jersey. I knew that condition-wise I was in good hands with the S&C staff and the medical staff to get me to a place where I’m able to help the team. It’s one of those things where there are no shortcuts, it’s just hard work, extras off the field with the team around me.
“Coming here, working with [scrum coach Robin McBryde], he’s been great for me. Just looking at things differently, the way I’m able to set up and use my bind and little tweaks here and there have allowed me to present better pictures and to attack a little bit more.”
Addressing the disappointment of initially missing out on selection for the first Test, Vunipola added: “It is obviously different for everyone but for myself personally it was hard. The initial reaction was frustration and you start wondering what you could have done. Having been fortunate enough to play in some games for the Lions before, I knew if I did get the opportunity I had to make sure that I did my job and fully grasp and take hold of it and make sure I didn’t miss that opportunity.”