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."
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