Billy Vunipola’s first experience of an England v Tonga World Cup clash left him feeling pretty intimidated and holding onto his brother’s hand for dear life.
He will not have big bro Mako for support this time around, but suffice to say, England’s wrecking ball No.8 will not be quite so reserved.
That first experience came at Twickenham, back in the 1999 World Cup, and Billy and Mako were in London for the first time watching their father Fe’ao and uncle Elisi for Tonga in a pool clash against the tournament hosts.
Billy was only six, and supporting his dad and the kingdom of Tonga as they slumped to a heavy defeat to the hosts, but the experience has stayed with him ever since.
“It was such a surreal time for me and my brother as we had just got off the plane straight into a World Cup, we were just taking it in our stride, following my dad around to Twickenham,” said Vunipola – who is in Sapporo preparing for England’s opener on Sunday.
“I remember Twickenham being like a spaceship, it was so big compared to anything we had ever seen coming from Tonga.”
He might be an England veteran now of 45 caps, Harrow educated via Wales and a European champion with Saracens but in his heart he remains that boy from the island.
“Being in fancy places in London, I know that it is not my place,” he said. “I still wear the same clothes — shorts and flip-flops — as I did when I came over.
“I know what their attitude will be because I have had the same mentality. They have a lot of pride. You can just go back through the history. Tonga has never been colonised and that is probably drip-fed down through to my dad and me.”
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) September 19, 2019
Eddie Jones has named an extremely strong XV to match Tongan muscle with their own Red Rose firepower on Sunday.
But for Vunipola, this will be a first-ever clash against the country of his heritage.
“I am Tongan, my parents are and my grandparents are so it will be very emotional,” Vunipola, 26, said. “I have to get my head right. With the country there will be split loyalties. They want Tonga to win and I want England to win.”
Vunipola will have family over from America and England for the game, and the village of Longolongo on the Pacific Island will be a place to be come kick-off time.
“[My auntie and grandparents’] house is a point where they go to watch the games together as a celebration,” Vunipola said. “Whenever we are playing, whether that is at home for England or for my club, they will all be watching and supporting and messaging me or my wife, so I will know about it if they are watching because they think it is all down to them that we are winning. I am excited to see what type of support we can garner this weekend.”
Twenty years ago Tonga were taught a lesson in a 101-10 defeat.
Billy Vunipola: “I wish that whatever we do over the next few weeks will stay with us for the rest of our lives.” pic.twitter.com/xyUyIWHSw4
— Alex Spink (@alexspinkmirror) September 16, 2019
But Vunipola’s own father insists to this day that they could have won that match two decades earlier.
Added Vunipola: “I know that my dad thinks they could have beaten England.
“That is just the way they are and that helps me a lot to prepare for games because I put myself in position that I am second best and I am always trying to be the best.”
Mako is still recovering from a hamstring injury and will not be in action this weekend, but Billy is prepared to do battle on his own.
“They will say all week that we don’t respect them, but we do,” he added. “We respect them a lot, but that gets them going – hopefully we show them more than enough respect in terms of how we play.”