England prop Mako Vunipola retires from international rugby

Mako Vunipola playing for England during last year's Six Nations
Mako Vunipola is currently serving a suspension at club level with Saracens - Getty Images/Andrew Kearns

Mako Vunipola, the Saracens loosehead prop, has announced his retirement from international rugby union.

The 32-year-old, who made his England debut against Fiji in 2012 as a replacement for Joe Marler, won 79 caps and represented the British and Irish Lions in nine Tests across a full set of three tours in 2013, 2017 and 2021.

He came off the bench in all five Six Nations matches last year but missed out on selection for the World Cup due to a back injury. With Steve Borthwick due to name his Six Nations squad next Wednesday, Vunipola has joined other veterans such as Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Jonny May in ruling himself out.

Vunipola said on Instagram:

Injuries to Ellis Genge, Joe Marler and Bevan Rodd have presented something of a headache for Borthwick over the position of loosehead. Vunipola, expected to leave Saracens at the end of the season after a trophy-laden career in north London, is himself serving a four-match ban following a red card against Newcastle Falcons.

Last week, Borthwick outlined his hope that Genge and Marler would feature during the Six Nations, if not as early as the tournament opener against Italy on February 3. The England head coach also name-checked Beno Obano and volunteered Tarek Haffar, Fin Baxter and Phil Brantingham as young front-rowers capable of stepping up to the top level.

Mako is a special player - no wonder Gatland called him world-class

You do not contribute towards four Premiership titles, three Champions Cups and win 79 caps and three Six Nations Championships, as well as appearing in a World Cup final, without being a particularly special player.

Mako Vunipola also completed a hat-trick of British and Irish Lions tours between 2013 and 2021, going on his first at the age of 22, and featured in all nine Test matches; a remarkable achievement. Only eight men in history, a cohort of immortals including Willie John McBridge and Gareth Edwards, have appeared in more Tests for the iconic invitational team.

Writing for Telegraph Sport last year, Warren Gatland picked Vunipola at loosehead prop in his Ultimate Lions side, saluting an operator who “simply world class” and “highly intelligent”. Eddie Jones is another to have raved about Vunipola’s presence and a rare ability to deliver sharp messages in team meetings and on the field.

Yes, there were matches characterised by scrummaging vulnerability. But what about the win over Ireland five years ago in which Vunipola amassed 27 tackles and 11 carries? Much more recently, in the autumn of 2022, his playmaking from first-receiver under-pinned the thrilling comeback that rescued a draw against the All Blacks at Twickenham.

Mako Vunipola after England's series win in Australia in 2022
Vunipola was an important part of some of England's biggest highs over the last decade - Getty Images/Steve Christo

Mark McCall has hinted that Saracens are set for a significant rebuild this summer. Both Mako and Billy Vunipola, pillars of the club’s success over more than a decade, could well join Owen Farrell in heading abroad. They will all be extra motivated to sign off with trophies. Tantalisingly, the Champions Cup final is set for Tottenham Hotspur.

As for England, Vunipola’s Test retirement increases the likelihood of a rookie loosehead being blooded during the Six Nations, though Steve Borthwick is hopeful that Ellis Genge and Joe Marler will be fit. Beno Obano has looked sturdy for Bath. Tarek Haffar, the dynamic Northampton Saint, is understood to have attended this week’s camp. Fin Baxter of Harlequins and Phil Brantingham of Newcastle Falcons are also rated highly. All three would-be debutants are highly exciting prospects, mobile and strong.

The Rugby Football Union’s tight-five camps aim to maintain the production line. Poignantly, Mako Vunipola attended the inaugural get-together at the end of September and addressed the youngsters present. No doubt his words were valuable. As England look to the future, Vunipola can be extremely proud of his career.

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