Mako Vunipola opens up on Joe Marler's latest England absence

Mako Vunipola has given his support to fellow England prop Joe Marler who has pulled out of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations championship for family reasons, raising serious concerns over his international future.

The 30-year-old Marler, who has won 72 caps, previously opted out of England’s tour to Australia in 2016 and retired from international rugby in 2018.

He then made himself available for the 2019 World Cup in Japan and opened up about his mental health struggles in his recently published autobiography. It is reported that his wife is expecting their fourth child and he issued a social media statement saying he wanted to “do right by my family” when it emerged on Monday that he was opting out of the 28-strong England squad chosen last Friday by Eddie Jones.

Vunipola understands the pressures involved. The prop has two young children while brother Billy has recently become a father for the first time. Both players are now heading into the England bubble for eight weeks. 

“It’s a tough one not being able to give your all when you are player of Joe Marler’s calibre,” said England loosehead Vunipola to RugbyPass. “It would be very hard to have him come in and be thinking and battling two things. It would be very tough for him to give his best. 

“That is just me speaking from my experiences and we are aware of the impact on the country with people struggling to make ends meet, being home alone and being locked up in your house. It’s difficult for their mental health.

“You don’t take being able to play for England for granted and it is a privilege in these difficult times. Going into the bubble is something you have to get your head around and you do make sacrifices to get to this level of playing for England and it’s not easy.

“The older I have got – and having a young family of my own – I completely understand because when I was younger the older guys would come into the England camp and be struggling, not physically but mentally being away from family for such a long time. 

“We all understand the risks and protocols around coronavirus that have to be upheld. For me, to come back from the Autumn Nations Cup and have time to fully recover has been unbelievable. 

“Having been away in a bubble and then getting time to come down and unwind after a long campaign was very beneficial in terms of my mental recovery. Having children of my own gives me a perspective, and Billy has a little boy now.

“He is having to change a little bit but in terms of him maturing – that is a work in progress! We are both lucky to have our partners and family helping out.”

An achilles injury will mean Vunipola is unavailable for the opening England game with Scotland on February 6, but the 30-year-old believes his extended rehabilitation since pulling out of the Autumn Nations Cup final with France in December has him close to being given the all-clear to play in the Six Nations.

Vunipola has not played since November 28 when England beat Wales and while Billy did play for Saracens in their recent Trailfinders Cup loss at Ealing, club colleagues Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Elliot Daly will have gone 62 days without any sort of a match by the time they take on Scotland due to Saracens’ relegation from the Gallagher Premiership. 

Vunipola isn’t worried, claiming the break from his perspective has been positive. “I had an achilles issue before the France game and this is the longest time I have been out. There has been wear and tear following a calf injury which meant the achilles was taking more of a load.

“I have now been able to let the achilles calm down and I wouldn’t have been playing for England or Saracens during this recovery time. Now I’m on the brink of being back and I’m going into the bubble with England to continue the rehab.

“In terms of would I prefer to play or train? To be honest I would rather play because training is not really my cup of tea and the older I have got the more I understand what my body needs to be able to perform. 

“In the last couple of years I have had to come off long injuries and then play games – I know what I need to be to help the team. No matter how tired you are you just give your all in the game. 

“It has been difficult watching teams playing in the Premiership and Europe because you do want to be involved in those games, but we know the reality of the situation we are in at Saracens and fully accept it.

“The way the young guys come into England they really push us and it hits you on the training field where you are wondering how you are going to keep up with these athletes.”