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The Vunipolas journey from Tonga to Twickenham

07 March 2013

  • The Vunipola brothers on growing up in Tonga and the pride of representing England
  • Mako in line to start against Italy on Sunday
The Vunipola brothers have been training with England

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Impact players are the currency of choice for most modern rugby teams and in brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola England have two bonafide steamrollers.

With a combined weight of 256kg, the brothers of Tongan descent are the dream duo for any international coach, offering power and grunt in abundance. Having worked their way up through the England ranks, Saracens prop Mako and London Wasps No.8 Billy are now firmly part of Head Coach Stuart Lancaster’s plans and pushing for starts in the elite team.

Their path to international stardom though is one less-trodden by most of the players training at Pennyhill Park this week. The brothers were born into a rugby dynasty in the South Pacific, with father Fe’ao having played in two World Cups for Tonga while six of their uncles and a grandfather also represented their country.

Instead of following in the footsteps of their family, the brothers moved to the UK in 1998 when their father signed a contract to play for Welsh side Pontypool. From Tonga to England, via Wales. Not the most normal of routes to the elite team. But after qualifying for residency it was not long until both brothers were scouted to play for England Age Groups.

Mako, 22,  the older of the two, played for both U18s and U20s. In the U20s he played alongside brother Billy (20), who says that the prospect of playing for the first team is a dream come true.

Billy Vunipola in training with England

Photo Credit: Getty Images

“It’s a massively exciting prospect but the journey has been long and hard. I was talking to my brother about it and how my dad used to make us run on the road on Saturdays after games while he was in the car. We have some good memories now but at the time it was pretty painful. It’s been a life-long dream for both of us and we are still striving to do it. It’s massively exciting for me and my family.”

While Billy is yet to appear in a match day squad, Mako has already made seven appearances as a substitute, coming on in all three of England's games so far in this year’s RBS 6 Nations. A start on the cards for Mako against Italy on Sunday he says he is enjoying every moment being involved with England.

“It’s been a little bit of breakthrough season but there’s still a bit rugby to be played," he said. "If you said to me eight months ago that  I would be here in the England camp and training, I would probably say it’s not true and too unbelievable.

“To see where I have come from in last couple of months to be here is amazing but I can’t stop on that or dwell on that as I would be left behind but I’m happy how last couple of months have gone but still a lot more to come from me and I am happy to get the chance to do it.”

Natural ability and innate handling skiils have never been an issue, but maintaining fitness and getting into condition for international rugby has been a challenge for both players. Mako has dropped 20kg to get in line for a starting place, while Billy is 16kg lighter than last year and says he feels much more competitive for it.

Mako Vunipola goes into contact against France

Photo Credit: Getty Images

“That’s our biggest challenge, trying to stay in shape. We are trying to keep up with the pace and stay in shape, just so we can be fit enough to do good things during the game.  I have much more confidence than if I came in last year. I went through a bit of a transformation myself in the summer to slim down and it’s helped me massively this year, with ball carrying and being in the defensive line more often.”

The physicality is something both players revel in and on Sunday managing the Italian pack is going to be key to continuing England’s unbeaten run in this year’s RBS 6 Nations. Mako is aware of the threat at the set piece and especially the threat of Leicester Tigers prop Martin Castrogiovanni.

“We have seen from the first couple of games that their set piece has also been a strength of theirs and as a forward pack we know that and we can’t wait for that challenge really.

“Castrogiovanni  has been one of best tight heads in Six Nations history and he has still got it. I know personally if I get chance to play him though I know I will be ready for it."

See the Vunipola brothers answer questions from our England Rugby Facebook group