- Feature taken from Saturday's matchday programme
- Buy the England v Scotland matchday programme - here
England No 8 opens up on the journey of his lifetime to Alex Spink, rugby correspondent of the Daily Mirror, and says he has never enjoyed his rugby more.
Billy Vunipola has revealed the debt of gratitude he looks to repay every time he takes to a rugby field and why he is relishing the pressure that comes with Super Saturday.
Saturday is judgement day in the Guinness Six Nations. A champion is anointed and everyone discovers their place in the northern hemisphere pecking order. The heat is on.
That Vunipola cannot wait to step into the spotlight shows how far he has travelled in his life journey since arriving from the South Pacific completely unsure of himself.
“It’s not pressure any more,” says the Saracens No 8. “I turn up to a game and I just feel free because I know 100 per cent that this is where I want to be; this is where I’ve worked my whole life to be. As a kid I’d never have imagined feeling the way I do now.”“I turn up to a game and I just feel free."
To fully understand where Vunipola is coming from it is necessary to go back to the beginning, to where he actually did come from. To that winter’s day he arrived in the United Kingdom from Tonga via Fiji dressed in shorts and tee shirt.
“We didn’t know what to bring,” he recalls. “We were carrying knives and forks in our luggage – you probably wouldn’t be able to do that now. We were very naive. We didn’t think it would be so cold.”
Vunipola’s father Fe’ao, a Tongan international hooker of distinction, had come to play for Pontypool, bringing with him his family, including Billy and older brother Mako.
“You know when it’s cold and you can see yourself breathing?” asks the younger of the two. “We thought that was the coolest thing ever until we got home and it was still there. We pretended we were like the old guys smoking but it wasn’t cool when you were trying to go to sleep and it was still cold.
“We have a lot of people in Wales to thank for little gestures like extra duvets, pillows and jumpers. Big things too, like helping with visas and my dad’s work permit “
He remembers the first time they visited London, “just how busy it was and being scared of it. I remember having to hold hands all the time. It didn’t matter if we were just waiting around or crossing the road.”
Fe’ao won 34 caps for Tonga and continued playing club rugby in Wales until 2003 before hanging up his boots. By then Billy and brother Mako had settled into their new life. The decision was taken to stay.
“I think the only reason they stayed over was to give us a better chance in life,” says Billy. “I definitely know my dad didn’t want to stay here because he was cold. Not just cold, but so far away from our family, our comfort zone – and from what was easy.
“My parents had jobs, they had qualifications from New Zealand and Australia which put them in good positions back home in Tonga, which was the easy life. So, of course, part of the reason I’m so driven is to pay them back for putting themselves at risk.
“But also, these talents I have – this body – isn’t just an accident. People my size are usually tight-head props. I would go running with my dad and I’d hate it. Now I’m in a position where it’s paying off.”
Over the past four years, despite a string of injuries which include breaking an arm three times in the space of 10 months, Vunipola has amassed 40 caps and built himself a reputation as pretty much the best in the business in his position.
The uncertainty and self-doubt have largely gone, though he remains sensitive and humble. Where once he felt anxious, he now thrives.
“What I enjoy the most is the realisation I’d rather be here than anywhere else,” he says of the England camp. “There was a time I’d look at friends who watched me and think ‘I’d love not to have this pressure on my shoulders’."I’d rather be here than anywhere else."
“I’d see people on the bus and think ‘how free they must feel not having to live with expectation’. I wanted to feel what that was like and through my injuries I got to.
“And through those injuries I realised I’d rather be on the pitch than off it. I’d rather be playing than watching. I’d rather be in camp than have a week off or a holiday. I don’t want to just be a random guy watching a game.
“I think that’s probably the best lesson I’ve learned. To be grateful for the position I’m in, just enjoying preparing for a Test match, going to a Test match, being in a Test match and having that pressure.”
You've got to have faith
Vunipola keeps coming back to his Christian faith. Both in our conversation and in his life itself. He highlights the odd occasion he has “got lost in the lifestyle” that comes with being a leading international sportsman, rather than attempting to brush over them.
“Luckily for me my faith has brought me back to where I am,” he says. “That and my family. Their biggest fear, and it’s happened a few times, is that I start to get too big for my shoes. That’s probably why they try to keep me humble, which as a young kid I didn’t really understand.
“I’m like everyone else, I just wanted people to pat me on the back and say that I did well all the time. My family are more supportive when things go wrong than they are when things go right but what they have done is give me a good balance. Some guys will tell you what you want to hear, they will tell me what they think and what’s honest.
“Sometimes it does hurt but it is that honesty which has propelled me to where I am now.”
- Buy the England v Scotland matchday programme - here