EXCLUSIVE: After Mako Vunipola's England debut inspires a Pacific nation, will the Red Rose now reap… a Tongan harvest
23:00 GMT, 12 November 2012
When Mako Vunipola ran on to the pitch at Twickenham for his England debut on Saturday, it was around 4.45 in the morning in Nuku'alofa, but his proud father and hordes of relatives in Tonga's capital were wide awake, savouring the occasion.
The sight of one of their own playing in the Red Rose shirt was a big deal in the Pacific-island nation. Several rugby clubs were open in the early hours of Sunday morning to show the Italy v Tonga game followed by events from London, which suddenly took on added significance for those conquering tiredness to follow the footage on TV.
Having come on as a replacement in the 46th minute against Fiji, Vunipola jnr acquitted himself well – helping England maintain their scrum dominance while also showcasing his ball-carrying clout. Thousands of miles away, Fe’ao observed his son’s efforts with great satisfaction.
Hard yards: Mako Vunipola in training with the England squad at Pennyhill Park on Monday
Speaking to Sportsmail, the former captain of Tonga, who now coaches the national Under 20 team, said: ‘When I spoke to my wife, Iesinga, after the game, she said Mako wanted to know what I thought of how he played. I was very happy with his performance. In the past, his weakness was that his priorities were wrong – he preferred to carry the ball rather than do the hard yards in the scrum and lineout. I told him, “If you can’t sort out your set piece then forget about England”. Mako knew he had to improve his scrummaging and he scrummaged well on Saturday.’
The 21-year-old Saracens prop and his younger brother, Billy – who is emerging as an outstanding No 8 prospect at Wasps – were both huge Polynesian children who were brought up here, first in Wales while their father played for Pontypool, then in England. Fe’ao’s exploits meant they were destined to be rugby players, but he didn’t always push them in that direction. ‘They were big and strong from when they were young kids,’ he said. ‘They stood out because of their size and the lighter boys would always try to run around them.
‘They always wanted to play rugby – it is in our family, but I tried to discourage them. I wanted them to study hard and try to become lawyers or doctors or teachers. I told them that if they played rugby, as well as all the hard physical work they would have to accept being dropped without any reason. But they were determined to be rugby players.’
England debut: Vunipola made his international bow against Fiji at Twickenham on Saturday
He credits his wife with doing so
much to help her sons fulfil their potential, adding: ‘Their mum is a
Methodist minister and her faith has helped the boys a lot. She did
incredible work raising them. Sometimes, being in England, they can
become a bit arrogant and we have to tell them off and keep them humble.
They are more English than Tongan, so they only go to church because we
tell them off if they don’t!’
The Vunipola brothers began playing in Wales and Mako’s first club was New Panteg, where he appeared alongside another rising star of Tongan descent, Toby Faletau – now the Wales No 8. Recalling where it all began, Billy said: My first memory was playing touch rugby, standing in the middle of the pitch and not knowing what I was doing, at Newport High School. My dad got us into rugby and trained us up. I remember training with Toby down in Wales which was pretty cool.’
Eventually, the family moved on to
Bristol and then High Wycombe, with Mako going on to attend Millfield
School – a few years after England captain Chris Robshaw – while Billy
wound up at Harrow. Fe’ao had strong views on the thorny issue of
national allegiance, given the Tongan background, Mako being born in New
Zealand, Billy in Australia, and the pair growing up first in Wales
then on the other side of the Severn Bridge. But the boys had their own
Little cherub: An 11-month-old Mako
Holiodays: Mako (right) and Billy in the USA
‘I tried to convince
them that they should play for Wales, out of loyalty,’ said Vunipola
snr. ‘As a family, we ended up in the UK because of Wales, because of my
contract at Pontypool. We lived there before moving to England so I
wanted them to play for Wales, but they said they wanted to play for
England. I couldn’t change their minds.’
Explaining that decision, Mako said: ‘I wanted to play for the country I was growing up in. My father wanted us to strive for the best and that’s why we went for England. When we moved over we concentrated on getting into the England set-up.’
While the Tongan background is a firm part of their identity, there has been no doubt about the siblings’ ultimate target, with Billy adding: ‘We know where we are from so it’s just about whether people in England will like us playing for England. Everything has been pretty positive. We know where we come from but it has been a dream to play for England.’
Perhaps the biggest challenge along the way has been the need to work hard to hone their giant physiques. Much has been made about the big strides made by Mako when he spent last summer back in Tonga and Fe’ao suggested that all the graft has been the key to his older son’s sudden rise to Test status. That and his set-piece work.
Happy family: A Wallabies jersey-wearing Vunipola (left) and mother Singa with sisters Tiffany and Anna (right)
‘He came over to Tonga with his own programme and put it to good use,’ he said. ‘Mako hates doing long-distance running but that is what they wanted him to do and he did it. He’s now down to around 120kg, but at one time he weighed 140kg. Him and Billy were both fat and were told to slim down. They had to start watching their diet. I thought Billy would be the first to make it into the England team, but Mako has proved me wrong by improving his scrummaging.’
While the work ethic has been enhanced over time, there was always abundant natural talent. John Mallett, now coaching at Millfield, remembers an audacious display of skill from Mako, unheard of in a prop. ‘I’m still laughing at the day he dropped a goal from the halfway line in training, with a coat over his head,’ said the ex-England prop. ‘He was always doing little stunts but that was exceptional.’
Saracens coach Alex Sanderson has seen Mako’s development at close quarters over several years and soon knew this was a rare talent, albeit one who ‘looked like he was 30 when he was still a schoolboy’. ‘I’ve always had an eye on him since I coached him in the England Under 18s,’ he said.
‘I’ve always known about his potential. In that team we had Mako at loosehead and Joe Marler on the tight. Mako has had to grow up in the last season because of the demands in the Premiership. He’s now a big man who can hold his own in the tight and do his stuff in the open play.’
The shirt fits: Mako aged 17 (left) with brother Billy aged 16 (right) in England Under 18 kit
On Thursday, Stuart Lancaster is due to name his England team to face Australia in the second QBE International. Despite the fact that the country’s premier loosehead prop, Alex Corbisiero, is now back from long-term injury, the head coach insisted that Mako is ‘definitely in the mix’ to retain his place in the match-day 23. If he does, there will be another sleepless night for many in Tonga. ‘It’s normal for Tongans to play for the All Blacks, but for a Tongan to move further away and play for England is new, so people here are really excited about it,’ said Fe’ao.
‘The Tongan people put England on a high pedestal in every aspect of life and rugby started in England, so for a Tongan boy to play for England is unbelievable. Now that the door is open I’m sure more Tongans will aim to follow in Mako’s footsteps. There are loads of young Manu Tuilagis and Mako Vunipolas in the islands, who will now aspire to play for England.’
For Test teams visiting Twickenham in the future, that is an alarming vision.