No England player is keener to run around a rugby field this weekend than Mako Vunipola, who is set to make his long-awaited comeback from injury against Ireland on Saturday.
The Saracens prop has not been available to Eddie Jones since the Champions Cup final in mid-May, but is now ready to resume national service. It has been a long, eventful slog for the loosehead, who tore the tendon at the top of his hamstring so badly the muscle became detached from the bone. An operation was required and only now can he joke about how he was transported in a wheelchair across Los Angeles airport en route to Tonga where he was the best man at his brother Billy’s wedding.
“A poor lady had to push me,” said the 122kg Vunipola. “It’s the biggest airport I’ve been to in my life and she was struggling a bit. I asked her: ‘Are you okay?’ I owe her a thank-you for that.”
The 28-year-old also ended up having to spend two weeks in bed which, initially, was not a problem. “For me it was pretty much heaven. I was in bed constantly, apart from when I needed to go to the bathroom or the kitchen. I don’t need much excuse to stay in bed.”
In terms of body weight I'm near enough the lightest I've ever been. I feel good about that
By the end of the fortnight, though, even a constant diet of television and his PlayStation was wearing thin. “I needed to move and get the hamstring moving but I also felt very sloppy by the end of those two weeks. You get bigger and you lose muscle – not that, with me, you can really tell the difference.”
Lowest fighting weight
Precisely what he weighed at the most inactive point of his rehab remains a secret (“I don’t want Eddie finding out”), but weeks of subsequent hard work have left him at his lowest fighting weight since the tour of Australia in 2016.
“In terms of body weight I’m near enough the lightest I’ve ever been. I feel good about that but match fitness is something different. We’ll see how I go the weekend, if I get the chance. It’s not Ireland I’m excited about, it’s being back playing. It’s been tough the last four weeks, training by yourself and then watching.”
At his best, a fully-fit Vunipola will be a key member of England’s World Cup squad and he is vowing to make the most of his latest opportunity on the global stage, having seen his cousin, Wales’s Taulupe Faletau, ruled out of the tournament through injury.
“Toby has had some terrible luck and I’m gutted for him. It reinforces the fact that any day could be your last, so you have to try to enjoy it as much as you can.
If I do get the opportunity to play this weekend, I'll be very excited to get a ball in my hand and do the thing I love
“At the last World Cup I had only just started my international career. When you are that age you think you have loads more World Cups coming round. Now I’m 28, with a few more injuries under my belt. As a team we have talked about not taking anything for granted.
“If we want to do what we set out to do and win the World Cup, we need to use every day to get better. That is what we’re trying to do. If I do get the opportunity to play this weekend, I’ll be very excited to get a ball in my hand and do the thing I love.”
England should be able to welcome back the flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill at Twickenham, but Exeter’s Henry Slade and Jack Nowell and Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie are targeting the final warm-up game against Italy in Newcastle on September 6th.
Northampton’s Lewis Ludlam has also been given this week off because he has not yet had his full mandatory allocation of summer rest.