Saturday’s Six Nations Grand Slam eliminator could not be bigger. England, rejuvenated and back in their stride, cross the Severn to take on their biggest of rivals, Wales, who can break their record for the most consecutive victories in their history if they claim victory at the Principality Stadium.
It is Warren Gatland’s final Six Nations as Wales boss, and potentially Eddie Jones’ with England. The winner will be odds-on favourite to go on and win the championship, and a likely Grand Slam to boot, while the losers will be consigned to a battle for second place.
The passion, the emotion and the hatred that exists within this rivalry could not be any higher. Though for one man and his family, that hatred does not exist. Had circumstances over the last two decades played out differently, Billy Vunipola and older brother Mako could easily be donning the Welsh dragon instead of the red rose.
The Vunipola family upped sticks in 2000 and moved to Wales to follow Billy’s rugby-playing father, Fe’ao, following his move to Pontypool RFC little more than a year before. Suddenly his two young sons, Billy and Mako, had a new life to get used to, and this did not mean deciding which rugby nation they wanted to play for.
“We came in the winter in shorts and a T-shirt,” reflected Vunipola. “We didn’t know what to bring. We were carrying knives and forks in our luggage – you probably wouldn’t be able to do that now.
“You know when it’s cold and you can see yourself breathing? 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.”
It was about as big a culture shock as you can get for two young boys, aged six and eight with Pacific Island heritage, born and raised in the Antipodes, now staring the brutality of a cold and wet British winter in the face.”
That’s why for Billy Vunipola, there simply is no hatred within the Anglo-Welsh rivalry. “We hold a lot of people in high regard in Wales, we have a lot of family friends, people who helped us out. And when I say helped us out, I mean really helped us out when we first came over here. There’s a lot of love for people in Wales.
“Extra duvets, extra pillows, jumpers - all those little things. We were very naive when we first came over and didn’t think it would be that cold. Those little gestures, and big things too - like helping with visas and my dad’s work permit and things like that. We hold a lot of people in high regard in Wales.”
Two of those who were pivotal in not only helping the Vunipolas to settle but keeping them in the UK were the late Pontypool kitman, Terry Gordon, and his wife Jane. It was Terry who brought them supplies when times were tough at the start of their new life, and Jane who sought a place at the theological college in Cardiff for the Vunipola’s mother, Iesinga, that ensured they would not be sent back to Tonga.
“It was a kitman from the club at Pontypool,” Vunipola adds. “He took pity on my Dad and us as his little family. He has recently just passed away, and we were at his funeral in Wales a few months ago. Terry - I called him Tiger - a great guy.
“Like I said, there’s never any hate there.”
Vunipola stayed in Wales until he was 11, when the family moved to The Castle School in nearby Bristol that was - crucially - across the border in England. Thus started their transition from future Wales internationals to England stars, and while adopted sibling Taulupe Faletau followed the route of the dragon, a scholarship at Harrow School and place in the Wasps Academy sent Billy Vunipola down the path of the red rose.
That’s not to say that Vunipola has any regrets about the path he chose. From Bristol to Harrow and then Wasps, and finally a call up to the England Under-18s, the hulking No 8 had decided that the future for him was England.
“I had great people who brought me through the system,” he recalls. “Funnily enough one of them works here with us now, Charlotte (Gibbons, England’s team operations manager). I was only 15 at the time and I got called up to the Under 18 set-up with John Fletcher and Peter Walton, and for three years those guys kind of nurtured me into the player that I am today, gave me so many opportunities and I guess taught me a lot of lessons as well.
“I remember I was in trouble at Harrow,” he adds. “Not cutting my rat’s tail, I just hid it in my collar and then I got caught, it sounds silly now but back then it was a big deal.
“I had to do laundry duty as punishment on a Friday when everyone else had left, and Charlotte, bless her, drove me down to the camp after and I remember thinking how lucky I was to be given a second opportunity, because I had missed the first day of camp but they forgave me.
“All those little stories stick with me. Funnily enough we had a Welsh S&C coach at the time as well, Neil Taylor, and I still talk to him, so you know, my allegiance is firmly with England.”
Fast-forward a decade and here we are. Wales versus England is on the horizon and it could not be bigger. That has subsequently brought back talk of the hatred that flows across the border when it comes to rugby, with current England exile Danny Care recalling this week of the “hate” that the players see as they roll through Cardiff city centre on the team bus - that was actually headbutted by one over-eager fan on one trip to the Principality Stadium.
But while the Welsh side feeds off that hostility, Vunipola believes England can use it to their own advantage, in more ways than one.
“I’m not saying we can’t fight the emotional battle at the same time,” Vunipola said. “It’s important we match up to it because we know it’s coming. They have said it themselves, and it’s no joke. We would be kidding ourselves if we went there and said ‘we can just do our job and everything would fall into place’. This game runs a little bit deeper, and everyone knows that. We have to be prepared to fight that.
“When you play the Welsh it’s always a very emotional game. We have to fight that battle as well but we also know we have our personal jobs to do in the game within the game so that our team is in the best position.
“I think love works better than hate because you have a clear mind. With hate you think everything’s wrong and it’s not your fault, it’s everyone else’s fault.
“I never really understood it. I just followed what everyone else was doing. Obviously now I’m on the other side of the fence, I can understand them supporting their own. They are a very tight-knit community. It doesn’t matter where you are from but our job is to win a rugby game on Saturday.”
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