Viliami Vunipola – generally known as “Billy” – was born in Australia of Tongan parents but is now very much part of the England Rugby set-up for the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup. The family moved to the UK when Billy was about six and his father Fe’ao Vunipola played for Pontypool and Pontypridd, as well as representing Tonga in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups.
As Billy’s career has progressed, the family values he grew up with have remained important to him: “My mum and dad are the biggest influences on us staying grounded, especially my mum. She always thinks that a setback is something that makes you stronger and something that is there to help you get better. She’ll always say we’ve done well but she always put at the end, ‘Thank God’ as it’s not our doing, it’s someone else’s.
“I never ask that we win or that I play well, I just pray for protection, I think that’s the biggest thing. Just that I would have strength and energy to do not only myself proud but my family and everyone else proud. Then I just play the game.”Billy played for England at Under 18 and Under 20 level as well as the England Saxons (England B) before he gained his first senior cap in 2013, when he was selected for the England summer tour of South America.
On that tour Billy scored for an England XV against a South American XV in Uruguay and scored an unlikely three tries in six minutes against CONSUR. His international debut came against Argentina where he came off the bench to score a try.
While still at school he was signed by the London Wasps Academy, progressing into the first team in the 2011-12 season. After two seasons at Wasps he signed for London rivals Saracens and has been part of the very successful Saracens teams. In 2013-14, Billy’s first season with Saracens, they finished top of the Aviva League table but lost the Premiership play-off final to Northampton Saints 20-24 after the game went into extra time.
The same year, Saracens also reached the final of the European Club trophy, the Heineken Cup, where they lost out to Toulon with Jonny Wilkinson kicking 13 points – two penalties, two conversions and a drop goal.
In the season which has just ended, Saracens could only finish fourth in the Aviva Premiership but made amends by reaching the Premiership play-off final where they beat Bath 28-16 to become champions.
They reached the quarter-final of the European Cup – the new name for the revamped European club competition, meeting ASM Clermont Auvergne in France. They went to Clermont with high hopes, having beaten the French team 46-6 in the previous year’s semi-final, but this year’s encounter was an altogether closer affair. A powerful drive by Billy Vunipola created the chance for Charlie Hodgson to land a superb drop goal, which gave Saracens the first points of the game. Saracens led 6-3 at half-time before Wesley Fofana scored the only try of the game. An Owen Farrell penalty in 65 minutes reduced Clemont’s lead to one point at 10-9 but the only additional score was a Brock James penalty for Clermont to seal their 13-9 victory.
Billy has bitter memories of that defeat: “When we lost the game to Clermont … I was asking myself, ‘Why don’t I ever win any trophies?’ I prayed a lot and I talked to my mum – who is a minister herself – about it. She just says that if we become driven by trophies and winning and things like that then our whole life will just change. They become our idols. And that’s what God doesn’t want for us – to have idols and for us to follow things and not him. That opened my eyes up a lot, but also the setbacks with England and stuff like that was really tough because all the media would be on my back. I was asking myself: ‘There are 15 other players, why are they blaming me?’ There was something bigger to it.
“I came back stronger … because I went back to my faith and I went back to what we’d been taught all our lives, that whenever you’re playing, whatever you’re doing, whenever you’ve just woken up just say ‘Thank you’ to God. Everything we … have – or I feel like everything that I have right now – has been given to me. Even my talent is a gift and I know I have to work on it but someone higher up has given it to me, so I just have to be thankful for everything …”After his successful tour of Argentina in 2013, Billy held his place in coach Stuart Lancaster’s squad, gaining 17 caps to the end of the 2014-15 season. This year he scored Six Nations tries against Italy and France.
In his rugby career, Billy has found himself following in the footsteps of his brother, Mako – nearly two years older. When Billy got in the England Under 18 and Under 20s team, Mako had already been there. When he signed for Saracens in 2013, Mako had been there since 2011. And when he was called into the full England squad, he saw a familiar face – Mako had been an England player for a year.
The brothers enjoy playing in the same team. As Billy puts it, “It’s quite funny because sometimes I get annoyed and my brother cools me down and then he gets annoyed and I tell him to calm down. We tend not to shout at each other, we kind of just expect each other to work hard, then everything else just comes.” When the two brothers play together for England on a Sunday, it can, however cause problems for their Methodist minister mother, Reverend Iesinga Vunipola, who has other Sunday duties. She told The Daily Telegraph, “A part of me is saying I should be there for my sons because they want me to be. But Sunday is the day I would rather not be anywhere but with the church.” She added the mother’s dilemma: “You know, I can’t really enjoy it when they play because I don’t want to see them hurt.”
The Christian faith that Billy grew up in remains a guiding influence in his life, including his rugby: “Knowing that Jesus is with me makes me a stronger person, a more confident person. Not arrogant, but just knowing that whatever I … try or [attempt] to do, even if it doesn’t come off, I’ll always have God or Jesus to lean back on, and I know if it didn’t go my way there must be a reason. There is always a reason. You know you can’t win every game and it is tough but my faith helps me with that, because there is more to life than winning and losing rugby games … In reading all of Jesus’ stuff or stories … he is very mild-mannered. Whenever he is asked a question [and] they try and trick him, he always answer in a very calm way – that is … a great example [for me] to be like that.” The Vunipola brothers will be at the heart of England’s Rugby World Cup challenge this autumn. They will be giving their all to the cause. Billy also recognises that there is life beyond rugby. “Obviously the rugby is there but you’ve got your whole life to live after that. I would like people to think that I was a cool guy, but humble enough to take on criticism, take on other people’s ideas and also just a man of God.” It seems a good balance to me.
Article by Stuart Weir and edited for Sorted. Quotations from Billy Vunipola are from an interview with David Stretton-Downes on behalf of Engage 2015, a cross-denominational campaign set up to help UK churches engage in mission and inspire legacy during and after Rugby World Cup 2015. Follow @Engage2015 or visit www.engagemediahub.com to watch the full interview.