England and Saracens No. 8 Billy Vunipola has candidly revealed the motivation that drove him, along with his father and his brother Mako, to leave his beloved Tonga for Wales and then England.
The 24-year-old, who is currently recovering from shoulder surgery, has opened up to Rick Broadbent of The Times, revealing how poverty ultimately led him to the UK, his decision to withdraw from the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand and also how playing for England was never a dream of his.
In what is a candid interview, the man from Tonga explains that when he chose surgery over a second Lions tour, his own father thought he didn’t care about his decision and that he didn’t require surgery.
“The first few times my dad called, he was not convinced I needed surgery. Dad is awesome but unrelenting. He thought I wasn’t upset and it was tough for him to see me give the impression that I didn’t care. The truth is, I had to do that or I would have sat there and cried.”
The younger Vunipola brother is, by his own admission, a bit of a crier. When he was told he hadn’t made the grade for what would have been his England debut in the Six Nations, he burst into tears, leading assistant coach and former England hard man Graham Rowntree to say tell the emotional youngster “Mate, we don’t cry around here”.
The journey Billy and his brother Mako have undertaken was one of necessity rather than desire, as he reveals that growing up in Tonga was difficult financially and that leaving was how they were to provide for their family back home.
“The reason we came here, to this vast country, was we had nothing at home. Back there we’d come home and eat the breakfast leftovers.
“It was not much of a life, which is why my grandad pushed us to come here.”
First arriving in Wales with his family as a child, Billy eventually ended up in London and the famous Harrow School on a rugby scholarship. While cousin and fellow Tonga departee Taulupe Faletau ultimately pledged his allegiance to Wales, the Vunipola brothers chose England, having spent their formative years in the country.
Despite growing up in the UK, however, playing for England was not a something he aspired to. With glaring honesty, Vunipola reveals that he cheered for Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final against England and reveals:
“It was never my dream to play for England.”
Committing to England when the opportunity arose was, according to the No. 8, a decision that would ensure money and opportunity. Knowing that this revelation may sound controversial, he simply admits that “I wear my heart on my sleeve”.
Not without his own personal struggles, including a charge of assault back in 2015 and his ejection from the recent England training camp in August for being drunk, Vunipola reveals that it has taken some difficult conversations with his parents to help him refocus.
“I’d be lying if I said it’s not hard to have your head turned because we are humans and, if someone blows smoke up your bum, you can get lost. I thought I was the man and I wasn’t. I was so ungrateful. I had a few tough talks with my parents and was told things I didn’t want to hear — ‘you’re arrogant’. I grew up here and so I am more confident than most islanders, but I got lost.”
In an interview that is wide-ranging, there is a raw honesty and an almost peaceful acceptance of the life he leads. Confident in his size and strength, accepting of his surrounding and the path and decisions that have gotten him here, Vunipola is almost like the eye of a hurricane.
There appears to be an inner-peace at his centre, while at the same time he is happy to apply his immense physical attributes to the task at hand on the rugby field, without apology and yet, ever driven by a simple honesty and ambition to do it better.