England No 8 Billy Vunipola wants to take his game to a new level, writes PAUL MORGAN.
The rivalry between England and Wales is one of the most intense in world rugby. On the pitch Wales have edged the recent big matches and in next year’s World Cup the two sides will go head-to-head in Pool A.
But there is one significant victory England managed to achieve over their near neighbours that could yet have a massive bearing on which one of them emerges on top at the World Cup.
In their teens the Vunipola brothers – Mako and Viliami – were Wales age-group internationals, but as we approach the World Cup both are certainties for the England squad.
Mako is likely to battle it out for the loosehead berth with Joe Marler, Alex Waller and Alex Corbisiero in Stuart Lancaster’s team, but if they are to prosper, brother Viliami – Billy to his friends – will have to be at his barnstorming best.
As we saw in 2003 with the colossal performance of Lawrence Dallaglio at the back of the England scrum, No 8 has always been a key spot for the Red Rose.
The only time England won the World Cup, Dallaglio was the man who sparked many of their attacks with his fearsome carries and in Billy they have found another ball-carrier capable of getting his side over the gainline.
Born in Sydney, Vunipola made his way into British rugby under the wing of father Fe’ao, a hooker, who won 32 caps for Tonga. Fe’ao played in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, played for Pontypool and was head coach at Marlow, a South West One East club, before taking charge of the Tonga U20 squad.
After arriving with their dad in 1999 the brothers could have played for either nation, but they eventually settled on England, even though their father once said he would have preferred them to have worn the red of Wales.
‘I tried to convince them that they should play for Wales out of loyalty. We lived there before moving to England so I wanted them to play for Wales. They said they wanted to play for England.’
But they aren’t the only family members to make a name for themselves in the game. Six of Billy’s uncles and his grandfather also represented Tonga.
The two brothers previously played alongside each other in the England U18 team and their careers have progressed from there. Even though they decided to play for England, the family influence will never leave him, as Billy explains.
‘It is a trait we [the Vunipola family] have,’ says the 126kg No 8. ‘Everyone is always telling us we can’t do something or we’re not good enough to do it.
‘When I was younger I was told to play prop and that I was always going to be a prop. I was told I was too fat — it just drives you on. The motivation for me is to shut the crowd up. It is similar to someone saying you are not good enough.’
‘When I was younger I was told to play prop and that I was always going to be a prop. I was told I was too fat — it just drives you on'
One of the most surprising things about Vunipola is his age. Incredibly he’s only 21 but responsibility sits comfortably on his broad shoulders for club and country, for whom he has won 10 caps.
Head coach Stuart Lancaster couldn’t wait to get him into the England XV and once he got him in wasn’t keen to change. Billy won his first eight Test caps consecutively before missing the Wales match at Twickenham last March through an ankle ligament injury. His influence was shown as he was the top ball-carrier on either side in both of England’s first two Six Nations matches this year. He made 17 carries against France at Stade de France and 16 against Scotland at Murrayfield the following week before reaching the landmark of 10 caps in a year when playing twice against New Zealand in June.
His first Test start came in November 2013, after injury robbed him of a cap in the Six Nations before and to his great pride it came alongside his brother. The presence of the Vunipolas and the Youngs – Ben and Tom – in that match was the first instance in 114 years of two pairs of brothers playing in the same England game. The only previous time it happened was when the Stout brothers – Percy and Frank – and the Davidsons – Jos and Jas – featured in the 5-0 defeat by Scotland in 1899.
Billy now plays for Saracens, joining his brother at Allianz Park after admitting he had trouble facing him in a club match while he was at London Wasps.
Recalling the time he came up against Mako on the pitch in the English Premiership, Billy says: ‘We had to tackle each other a few times, of course, and that wasn’t great for either of us. We both had to be professional and get our heads down but it was a difficult day.
‘That’s one of the reasons I came to Saracens. I didn’t want to go through that again and I know my parents didn’t. Mako was keen for me to join him, too, so it seemed like a good idea all round. You never know what’s around the corner but it’s our hope we’ll always play for the same team from now on. So far it’s worked out well.’
It certainly has worked out well as Billy started this season with a bang, making an impressive 17 carries as Saracens leapt out of the blocks, winning their opening match against Wasps.
‘I realise teams will try to close down my space and I have to lift my game,’ says Billy, who may be without his brother until November after a knee injury ruled him out. And the good news for Saracens and England is that Billy is not content with just a direct and powerful running game, and is trying to take his game to a new level as the World Cup approaches.
‘I am trying to keep the defence guessing. Obviously, carrying the ball is still a big part of my game, so mixing it up is important,’ he says. ‘Offloading to support players is about building up partnerships and when Mako is in the team, he instinctively knows what I am trying to achieve and it’s my job to get that across to other players.
‘[All Blacks No 8] Kieran Read also does it [offloading] to good effect and that is what I’m trying to achieve. One of my main attributes is giving the team a platform by getting over the gainline.’
Should Billy do that this season and in the World Cup there may be a few more Welshmen regretting his teenage decision.
– This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine