England’s No8 will run out at the Principality Stadium for a seismic Six Nations clash on Saturday, two decades after making the 10,653-mile journey to Pontypool as a six-year-old.
It was the aspiration of his father Fe’ao, a veteran of two World Cups for Tonga, that Billy and elder brother Mako would eventually find professional jobs in the United Kingdom.
The Saracens back row remembers feeling “scared” as he made only his second trip overseas – the first was to Fiji – but still values the kindness shown by Pontypool’s kitman Terry Gordon, among others.
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“It’s a big game, but there’s no hate there. We hold a lot of people in high regard in Wales – we have a lot of family friends there, people who helped us out,” Vunipola said. “And when I say helped us out, I mean really helped us out when we first came over. There’s a lot of love for people in Wales.
“Terry – we called him Tiger, great guy – took pity on my dad and us and took us under his wing. He has recently just passed away. We were at his funeral a few months ago in Wales. There’s never any hate there.
“He helped us out with extra duvets, extra pillows, jumpers – all those little things because we were very naive when we first came over and didn’t think it would be that cold. We came in the winter in shorts and a T-shirt. 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.
Countdown to #WALvENG ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 21, 2019
“It was 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. 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.”
For all his affection for Wales and the early home made on these shores, Vunipola insists that for 80 minutes on Saturday the battle lines will be clear. “Where we kind of fall apart is when England v Wales comes into it, that’s when we kind of divide,” he said.
“But that’s only once or twice a year and it’s nothing crazy – they will support Wales and I will play for England so they won’t be supporting me. When you play the Welsh it’s always a very emotional game, so we have to fight that battle as well. This game runs a little bit deeper, and everyone knows that. We have to be prepared to fight that.”
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