Then have a look at the old photo of a nine-year-old Billy sitting at a table, a boy of precocious heft towering over his fellow East Wales Schools Under-11s players, including future Wales wing Harry Robinson. Rugby fans can book British and Irish Lions Tour Tickets on our website on exclusively discounted prices.
And for good measure, note that the Saracens number eight has known Wales and British and Irish Lions back-row Taulupe Faletau so long that the two regard each other as family, albeit unofficially. Vunipola was born in Australia to Tongan parents and moved to Wales aged five when his father, Fe’ao Vunipola, signed for Pontypool in 1998.
A year earlier, Kuli Faletau joined another Gwent club, Ebbw Vale, and moved his family including then six-year-old son Taulupe – with him to south Wales.
“A lot of the Tongan community kind of started their roots in Wales,” Vunipola tells the BBC Scrum V podcast. When my dad came over a few in the community met up and made sure they compared notes on things like when they go shopping, all these little things Tongans didn’t get when they came from Tonga.”
“I remember it was pretty bleak just in terms of the weather. It was the coldest thing I had ever experienced coming over from Tonga and Australia. People were very welcoming, especially when they knew you were good at rugby. We were in Caerleon, so our first club was Newport High School Old Boys,” Billy recalls.
“I remember playing touch rugby. I think I only played touch maybe three or four games. I would just stand in the middle of the pitch and watch all the little, fast kids run around me. I didn’t really get the concept of it. Rugby fans can book British and Irish Lions Tour Tickets on our website on exclusively discounted prices.
“And then a few weeks later they moved me up to my brother’s age group and that’s when I started to get my head down and getting into it, because there was contact and something I could contribute to the team, rather than just catching the ball and someone just ripping my tag off my hips. So that became more fun for me and probably less fun for people around me.”
“After that, we just joined a club wherever we were so when we went to Pontypool, we went to New Panteg, then Pontypool district and then East Wales and played against the likes of Sanj and all those boys coming through.
“We didn’t really realise at the time that we would get all the way to the top, but it’s actually it’s a fun story and a fun memory to look back at, the team sheets and the kind of players we played against without realising where they are now in the game.”
Lions 2021 is my next big goal
Billy has also had his share of bad luck with injuries, with a shoulder problem forcing him to withdraw from the Lions’ squad for their 2017 tour of New Zealand.
Mako and Faletau both started all three Tests of the drawn series against the All Blacks, having also played on the Lions’ victorious tour of Australia in 2013. Missing out on that family affair remains a source of anguish for Billy.
“I was happy for my brother and Toby to be starting, but I also had a bad feeling of envy, knowing I could have had a chance to be with the team,” he says.
“I took myself out of it – I went to New Zealand, stopped off in Tonga and saw my family. I thought I wouldn’t have that same feeling again but my family were so engrossed in it – they had red tinsel everywhere, like it was Christmas! Everywhere I went, you couldn’t get away from it. That feeling still sits with me but, at the same time, the decision was with me to pull out of the tour.”
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