Missing the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand was a major disappointment not only to Billy Vunipola but also to the party’s management team because of his magnificent form. He was ruled out by a shoulder injury sustained in the Premiership semi-final defeat at Exeter in May.
A knee ligament strain had brought a premature end to Billy’s role in the 2015 RWC after he had figured in only two games but on his return five months later, he was man of the match with a commanding 19 ball-carries in the opening Six Nations victory over Scotland. He won the same accolade in the Ireland game with an even more outstanding performance before being man of the match for the third time in the victory over France that brought the Grand Slam.
He produced other immense and ebullient displays in the historic series win over Australia in June last year and continued to prove difficult to tackle, even in confined spaces. His try around the blind side of a dominant scrum in Sydney was straight off the training ground. Pure perfection. He also had 18 carries when England began the Old Mutual Wealth Series with a 37-21 win over South Africa at Twickenham last November. A torn knee cartilage sustained in the match against Argentina required surgery and was ruled out for three months. He made a triumphant try-scoring return off the bench for England against Scotland this March.
Viliami, better known as Billy, had been appointed as one of three England vice-captains before the start of the 2016 Championship. He scored a last-minute try on his Test debut against Argentina in 2013 which showed how he had moved on swiftly from his days as an England U20 player in 2012.
His landmark touchdown from a scrum, along with a conversion from Freddie Burns, completed England’s 32-3 triumph over Argentina in Salta on June 8, 2013. Billy also played off the bench for Ben Morgan when England completed a 2-0 series win a week later in Buenos Aires.
He had already plundered a stunning hat-trick of tries in the opening tour match against the CONSUR XV at Montevideo. The England XV won 41-21 and his scores came in a six-minute spell during the first half. He joined Saracens from Wasps for 2013-14 and made his first Test start, alongside his brother Mako, in the 20-13 win over Australia at Twickenham in November 2013.
The presence of the Vunipolas and the Youngs brothers 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 that it happened was when the Stout brothers – Percy and Frank – and the Davidsons – Jos and Jas – featured in the 5-0 defeat by Scotland at Blackheath in 1899.
No stranger to the art of try-scoring, he did just that in successive matches against Italy and Wales to help England U18 extend their victorious run to 19 international matches before the 23-17 defeat by hosts South Africa in the four-team tournament in July 2010. He was vice-captain to Chris Walker on the tour and appeared in all three games.
Sydney-born Billy was brought into the England U20 squad for the 2012 IRB Junior World Championship in South Africa as a replacement for Matt Kvesic, who had undergone surgery on a shoulder injury. Billy is part of a distinguished Tongan rugby dynasty; his brother, Mako, who has 39 England caps, toured Australia with the 2013 British & Irish Lions, having also been a member of the national U20 squad. Both signed multi-year contracts with Saracens in April 2015.
Their father Fe’ao, a hooker, won 32 caps for his country, figured 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 and becoming the interim chairman and president of the Tonga Rugby Union. 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 run almost parallel from there.
Billy, like Mako, qualifies for England through residency and his favourite ground is Twickenham. He said: “The atmosphere is crazy.” His maiden try was on his Premiership debut against Leeds Carnegie in April 2011 and, to date, has made 81 appearances in the competition and scored 14 tries. In Saracens’ 2015/16 European Champions Cup winning campaign, he also beat 22 defenders, more than any other forward in the tournament.
Educated at the Castle School, Bristol, he went on to Harrow to study Photography, Design Technology, Physical Education and Business with aspirations of becoming a world-renowned photographer.
A former member of the Wasps Academy, he played for Bristol in 2007/08 and has benefited from the England U18 coaching team of John Fletcher and Peter Walton. He added: “Both have shown great belief and brought me through even though I thought I was just average. The players I most admire are those who are humble and hard-working such as George Ford, the England U18 captain seven years ago.”
Billy won his first eight Test caps consecutively before missing the Wales’ match at Twickenham in March 2014 through an ankle ligament injury, having been the top ball carrier on either side in both of England’s first two RBS Six Nations Championship matches.
He made 17 carries against France at Stade de France and 16 against Scotland at Murrayfield the following week before reaching the landmark of ten caps in 12 months when playing twice against New Zealand in the summer of 2014. His second Test try followed an irrepressible peel at the front of the lineout against Italy at Twickenham in February 2015 and his third was in England’s 55-35 victory over France the following month. Next up and crucially, he pounced for a try against Fiji in the opening RWC match with the final play of the game to secure a bonus point. Billy’s 64 carries had been the most in the 2015 RBS 6 Nations Championship.
30 points – 6T
2013 Arg (1R, 2R), A, Arg, NZ 2014 F, S, I, NZ (2R,3), NZ, SA 2015 W, It, I, S, F, F, I(R) World Cup - Fj(R), W 2016 S, It, I, W, F, A(1,2,3), SA, Fj, Arg, 2017 S(R), I
Last updated: 11 June 2017