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Mako Vunipola revels in British and Irish Lions’ award

British and Irish Lions prop Mako Vunipola celebrates with captain Sam Warburton. Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images British and Irish Lions prop Mako Vunipola celebrates with captain Sam Warburton. Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Saturday, December 28, 2013
11:53 AM

Mako Vunipola says that this month’s Sport Personality of the Year awards bash rekindled fond memories of his summer with the British and Irish Lions.

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The Lions were named the team of 2013 in the BBC’s ceremony in Leeds after their successful series win in Australia and, though the 22-year-old was unable to attend due to Saracens training commitments the next day, he was delighted with the gong.

“To get an award like that is prestigious and for us players it was an honour which also brought back memories from the summer tour,” the prop said.

“Making my England debut was a major highlight but then, in the same season, to play for the Lions was something special.

“Hopefully there’s more to come.”

Vunipola starts for Sarries today at bottom of the Premiership Worcester Warriors having come off the bench during last week’s 49-10 romp past champions Leicester Tigers - his first league outing since the start of October after a knee ligament injury. Though he admits his immediate focus will be on his club, he has half an eye on the Six Nations early next year.

“Every player wants to be playing international rugby and I’m no different,” he said. “I want to be playing and starting for England but to do that I have to play well for Sarries.

“That’s the challenge when we’ve got players like Richard Barrington and Rhys Gill, who is still to come back from injury.”

The former, signed from Championship side Jersey in the summer, has come to the fore in recent weeks and started ahead of Vunipola against Tigers but will take a place on the bench for the trip to Sixways.

“He’s slotted in seamlessly, worked hard off the ball and his set-piece has come on every week,” Vunipola said of Barrington, adding: “He’s learning on the job. He’s still young like me and we bounce off each other - the props all enjoy each other’s company. It’s good fun and Richard has come in and done a good job for the team.”

Having celebrated the Leicester victory with the club’s Christmas party and a few well-earned festive days off, thoughts now turn to avoiding a slip-up against the winless Warriors.

Vunipola said: “To get a win like that against a great team like Leicester is something special and we’ll treasure it for some time but we’ve got a big game against Worcester.

“It’s a different challenge. Leicester are used to being at the top of the table and Worcester are in a position where they are fighting for their lives at the bottom.

“For us it’s about playing with the same intensity we would any other team and doing the same job.”

Lock forward Alistair Hargreaves captains Saracens today and is partnered by George Kruis in the second row.

Elsewhere in the pack, Vunipola is joined by Schalk Brits and fellow Lions prop Matt Stevens in the front row.

In the back row, Billy Vunipola returns to No.8, with Jackson Wray starting at blindside flanker – Kelly Brown completes the back row trio and will wear the No.7 jersey.

In the backs, in form scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth continues at No.9 and is partnered by Charlie Hodgson in the halves.

Chris Wyles starts at inside centre and is partnered by Tim Streather, who faces his hometown club.

In the back three David Strettle returns to the side after shaking off a knock that ruled him out of last weekend’s game against Leicester, and starts on the left wing.

Try-scorer against the Leicester Tigers Jack Wilson swaps wings and replaces Chris Ashton on the right flank, whilst England international full-back Alex Goode starts at 15.

On the bench, Saracens welcome back England internationals Mouritz Botha and Brad Barritt from their respective injuries, whilst back-rower Justin Melck and scrum-half Ben Spencer make the 23 man squad.

Saracens: 15. Alex Goode; 14. Jack Wilson, 13. Tim Streather, 12. Chris Wyles, 11. David Strettle; 10. Charlie Hodgson, 9. Richard Wigglesworth; 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Schalk Brits, 3. Matt Stevens, 4. George Kruis, 5. Alistair Hargreaves (c), 6. Jackson Wray, 7. Kelly Brown, 8. Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: 16. Jamie George, 17. Richard Barrington, 18. Petrus Du Plessis, 19. Mouritz Botha, 20. Justin Melck, 21. Ben Spencer, 22. Marcelo Bosch, 23. Brad Barritt.

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