Mako Vunipola's rise to the red rose

The proud prop is glad to have picked England over Tonga, New Zealand or... Wales. Now, as he tells Chris Hewett, he's dreaming of a family double

This being the awards season, it is only right and proper to recognise the Tuilagi clan of Samoa as clear winners in the Great Rugby Sibling Rivalry category. There are six of them, after all – each one scary in a different way. Second place? That goes to the Quinnells of Llanelli, three brothers who must have made a right old mess of the biscuit barrel as they fought over the last chocolate digestive. And third? Step forward the Vunipola boys, two serious physical specimens of Tongan descent whose impact on the English game is likely to be very considerable indeed.

Billy Vunipola, the 20-year-old Wasps No 8 bound for Saracens next term, is not a fully paid-up member of the senior red-rose squad yet, but as the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, likes having him around – the youngster was invited to join the pre-Six Nations training camp and is soaking up the experience as we speak – it is reasonable to assume he will be promoted sooner rather than later. Mako Vunipola, some 21 months older, is already there, quite possibly for the duration.

"I've been looking out for Billy since he's been here, but he doesn't need too much protection," says the elder brother, who suddenly appeared in the Test squad last autumn, as if fully formed. "I think we both knew long ago that we wanted to play for England, but until recently we never talked about doing it together. Things have changed a lot in a short period of time, though. Now we talk about the dream – and it may be that the dream is achievable.

"It would be wonderful. We were always playing rugby in the garden as kids" – you have to feel sorry for the garden – "and we both enjoyed the physical side of the game. I wasn't the fast one: I was always going to be a front-rower, because I wasn't quick enough to play anywhere else. Billy? They used to play him in the front row too, but he decided he didn't like it there. He's big and strong enough, but you have to want to be a prop."

Vunipola Major has been a Saracens player for a couple of seasons now – another example of his trailblazing approach to kith-and-kinship – but had made only a handful of starts in the north Londoners' pack when Lancaster summoned him for Twickenham duty last autumn. Those in the know were less than astonished by his rapid ascent up the loose-head pecking order, for his reputation as an international prop was already well established, but few expected him to finish the pre-Christmas series with four caps to his name.

Now he finds himself within a tree-trunk arm's reach of plenty more. The number one No 1, Alex Corbisiero of London Irish, is struggling to overcome a serious knee problem that is of increasing concern to Lancaster and his fellow coaches, and as there is only one other loose-head specialist in the elite party – Joe Marler of Harlequins, who, to digress for just a second, is sporting a spectacularly bushy ZZ Top beard as well as a Hiawatha hair-do – Vunipola is certain to be a member of the match-day squad throughout the Six Nations campaign, which starts with the Calcutta Cup match against Scotland next week.

According to the England forwards strategist, Graham Rowntree, whose cauliflower ears and beaten-up face bear testament to a career's worth of hard labour in the loose-head role, Vunipola has transformed himself from an old-style heavyweight scrummager into a thoroughly modern multi-tasking front-rower, complete with running game, tackling game and every other game under the sun. "He has a lot of strings to his bow these days," says the coach. "What impresses me most about Mako is his willingness to improve, his understanding of what it takes to get better."

During an apprenticeship spent largely at the Bristol club – he went to school in nearby Thornbury and was quickly spotted by academy scouts who fast-tracked him into senior rugby – Vunipola was a little too fond of taking in the calories: his father, Fe'ao, a captain of Tonga during his playing days and now coach of the island's Under-20 team, says that at one point in his teens his son tipped the scales at 140kg. If he is not exactly a shadow of the behemoth he once was, Vunipola has shed 20kg.

"It's down to running, gym work and diet," he explains before adding, forlornly, that he misses his chocolate. "If you don't have the right attitude to fitness, you'll struggle to make the most of yourself. I know that now. And it has to be full-bore: you either do it whole-heartedly or not at all. When I first went to Saracens, who were in the top four of the Premiership at the time, I was naïve in thinking that just by being with better players I'd become a better player myself. That's not how it happens. I'd always enjoyed playing rugby with the ball in my hands, but what Saracens drilled into me was the importance of making an equal contribution without the ball. That comes down to work rate, which in turn comes down to fitness."

The Vunipola story is, at least in part, an increasingly common one of exiled South Seas union-playing talent. In the early 1990s, Fe'ao and his wife, Iesinga, a Methodist minister, were moving around the Antipodes, and Mako was born in New Zealand. Brother Billy, on the other hand, was born in Australia. If international-class rugby was in the genes, the odds were firmly stacked in favour of the boys making the grade with either the All Blacks or the Wallabies.

Instead, after spending their earliest years with their extended family in and around the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa, they headed for… wait for it... the sunlit uplands of Pontypool, a fabled Welsh team just beginning to lose some of its lustre, but still a name to be reckoned with.

Fe'ao, who played in two World Cups, had agreed terms there and spent the 1998-99 season mixing it with the hard men of the valleys. It was there that his sons started throwing their combined weight around on the playing fields of local schools and clubs.

When the Vunipolas crossed the Severn Bridge and settled in England, first in south Gloucestershire and then in Buckinghamshire, what had been bred in the bone was obvious to every rugby scout with a functioning pair of eyes. The big rugby-playing schools were falling over themselves to offer them a fine education – Mako ended up at Millfield, Billy at Harrow – and the age-group honours began to accumulate. Mako played for England Under-18s a year young: no mean feat for a front-rower. The coaching fraternity knew that if he declared for the red rose, he would wear the red rose.

"My father would have been happy if we'd both chosen Wales," he says, acknowledging the debt of honour Fe'ao, a hooker, felt he owed to the rugby folk there. "But he never forced his opinion on us. He let us decide for ourselves. And from quite an early stage in my rugby life I wanted to play for England.

"Not that I have forgotten my roots. A lot of Vunipolas played international rugby for Tonga [as well as Fe'ao, six of Mako's uncles – and, indeed, his grandfather – were capped by the island] and I'll always have a soft spot for the team. In fact, I'll support them in every game they play, apart from the ones they play against England. They're doing well now: they've had big wins at the last two World Cups and they were very competitive in Europe back in the autumn. I'm proud of Tongan rugby, proud of my roots."

Corbisiero's current struggle for fitness, which may turn out to be a career-defining one, leaves Vunipola very close to his first Test start – and, perhaps, a good run in the position once occupied by some of the most revered figures in the red-rose game: Stack Stevens, Fran Cotton and Jason Leonard, to name the most obvious ones. As things stand, only Marler poses a threat, albeit a significant one.

"Yes, I want to start international matches," Vunipola says. "I'm a different player now than I was 18 months ago because of the improvement in my conditioning, and I want to make that work for me. It's been an exciting time recently and I'm grateful for the opportunities I've been given, but it's not enough for me. I don't want to settle for being on the bench. I want more."

Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence