Mako Vunipola interview: I’m proud to be facing the Haka ... but I’ll only be focusing on my job for England

Focus: Mako Vunipola  (Action Images via Reuters)
Focus: Mako Vunipola (Action Images via Reuters)

The Haka has the ability to transport Mako Vunipola back to his childhood, learning Tonga’s Sipi Tau war dance in his living room and giving front-room renditions with his father, brother and cousins.

The All Blacks’ Haka has the power to make the Saracens loose-head prop summon his heritage — but only if he lets it.

When he lines up against New Zealand before England’s Test match on Saturday, however, the thought processes will be entirely different.

“When we were young, we would practise the Sipi Tau in the living room, me and my brother (Billy) with my dad and our cousins,” Vunipola told Standard Sport. “It’s significant in our lives, it’s where we come from and who we are as Tongans.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“There’s a lot of family pride, and I look back now as I’m getting older and think that I am definitely grateful to stand across from the Haka. It’s something special, it’s been part of the Kiwi culture for a long time, and it’s important to show respect to that.

“On the field, though, I’m just thinking about what my job is next, not getting too emotional or sitting back too much and waiting for things to happen. It is as simple as that. You’re just standing there thinking, ‘right, whose kick-off is it, where am I standing?’ and hopefully that keeps the right focus.”

The Vunipola family will puff out collective chests again on Saturday when the brothers line up at Twickenham on Saturday.

Mako was born in New Zealand’s capital Wellington, before being raised in Wales and England. Father Fe’ao won 34 caps for Tonga and the Pacific Islands’ pride runs deep through the whole clan.

Samoa edged out Tonga 20-18 in the Rugby League World Cup on November 6 in Warrington. The Samoans performed their Siva Tau at the same time as Tonga delivered the Sipi Tau, with both sets of players edging within inches of each other amid a charged atmosphere.

Hugs and handshakes followed, as respect filled the air, leaving Vunipola to celebrate a spine-tingling moment.

“I wouldn’t remember all of the Sipi Tau from my youth, but parts of it, and they do change the actions over time of course,” said the 31-year-old. “I still get goosebumps watching it, though. It was amazing in the Rugby League World Cup seeing Samoa and Tonga do that.

“A lot of those players know each other well, but without putting words into their mouths, the hugging, that shows the level of respect not only as players, but also as human beings.”

Vunipola started England’s superlative 19-7 triumph over New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup semi-final. The 72-cap front-rower explained how England hope to harness the belief that still cuts through the squad from that World Cup win.

“(Head coach) Eddie (Jones) said to us at the start of the week that these are weeks you remember, and the games you want to be part of,” said Vunipola. “You don’t want to let chances against teams like New Zealand pass you by. It’s an exciting week whenever you’re playing the All Blacks.

“As the boss said, we need to take the game to them. They are a great side and if you let them have time and space, then they are going to tear you apart. It’s up to us to make sure we’re clear on our roles, then try to put in a performance we’re proud of.

“We were very fortunate to be on the right end of the result against them at the World Cup.

“There’s definitely belief in the squad that we have what it takes to match them, toe-to-toe, so it’s about us now, making sure that we are clear in that. And as Eddie said, we’ve got to go at them, rather than sitting back and having too much respect for them.”