A big surge does get the crowd up on their feet
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A big surge does get the crowd up on their feet
Billy Vunipola has come a long way to fulfil his dream of playing for England
Rugby is in Billy Vunipola's blood. Not only did his father, Fe'ao, play for Tonga, but so did six of his uncles and his grandfather.
But the Vunipolas are building an England dynasty these days. Having moved to the UK as a child, Billy and his older brother Mako have made the older generation proud. Capped at under-18 and under-20 level, together they have made it all the way to the England team. Billy, a rampaging No 8, made his England debut on the 2013 summer tour of Argentina, coming on as a replacement in the first Test - and scoring a last-minute try in the 32-3 England win. He won his 13th cap in the opening Six Nations Championship victory over Wales in Cardiff. Here, he explains what playing for England means to him…
What was the first England game you watched?
When they played Tonga in the 1999 World Cup and England won convincingly. Tonga scored a good try to begin with, then got a red card and it was pretty much downhill from there (England won 101-10). My dad was playing for Tonga at the time.
Did you have England rugby heroes when you were growing up?
Lawrence Dallaglio. He was a massive influence on me going to Wasps. Obviously I played in the same position but it was the way he played and the way he led his teams that appealed to me.
Have you ever watched England as a fan?
When did you first see a red rose on an England shirt that you were going to wear?
It was playing for England Under-18s against Scotland in Newcastle (March 2009). We had a very good team then and we beat them 63-0. I think I was 16 at the time. That was my first opportunity to play for England.
And what did that mean to you?
That day, lining up before the match, singing the national anthem next to my brother (Mako, who was in the same match squad). That's when I realised that the dream that we'd been driving towards since we moved here had come true. I was 11 when we moved to England and us both playing for England was our goal from then really.
What does the red rose mean to you now?
Privilege. It means a lot to me and my family because we've come from a little place in Tonga, trying to make a name for ourselves, and when you see that shirt it feels like we've done that. It's also a blessing. There's millions of people who'd like to be in the position I'm in. I'm very lucky to be where I am.
How did you feel on your England debut?
Very, very, very nervous. I could hear my heart beating. My first touch was a carry and as soon as I'd done that I was fine. But before that…
What can you remember about that debut try?
I picked up from the base of a scrum and ran it in. But I didn't have too far to run to be honest. The referee went to the TMO (television match official) so there was a bit of a delay before he awarded it. That did take away some of the celebration.
Your first start, and first home game, was against Australia. What was that like?
The nerves were similar to the Argentina game but it was a different experience running out in front of 80,000 people who were supporting us, and were expectant as well. But it helped that my brother was there. It was a tough game but I was so happy because my parents were there. That helped to relieve a lot of the nervous energy.
How does your brother help you before games?
He's just the person who knows me the best. He calms me down, picks me up for the bad things I might be doing but praises me for the good things. We do that for each other.
What is Twickenham like to play at as an England player?
Probably the best place I've ever played. You go from running out in front of 15,000 at a club game to 80,000 at Twickenham. You can't help but feel confident in front of that many people. You're playing at home and almost everyone there is supporting you.
What have you had to sacrifice to be an international player?
Nowadays, it's socially where you have to make sacrifices. You can't go out with your mates for a pint whenever you want, or for a meal. As a kid, sometimes it was tough to wake up at seven to get to the gym before school. Then you might have to train after school when your mates are off playing football. Sometimes it's hard to keep friendships when you're young because you're so busy all the time with rugby. So your team-mates become your friends then and I guess that's why rugby players become so close.
Are you aware of the crowd's support when you are playing?
Definitely, especially when your team are on the front foot. When England are on top and the crowd start singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", you definitely hear that. It helps a lot.
And seeing all those white shirts in the crowd must help, too?
Enormously. It gives us a huge advantage over the other team. If a team came to Twickenham and it looked like they had more supporters than us, we’d think, "what’s happening?" If the crowd are all in white shirts, that would intimidate the opposition a bit as well. But we try and do most of that on the pitch.
The Twickenham crowd loves a ball-carrying No 8. Are you aware how you can lift the crowd?
I know what you mean. I've got to try and stay within the systems of the team, it can harm us if I don't do that. But a big surge does get the crowd up on their feet.
Billy Vunipola picks three England team-mates for whom the red rose means so much.
The way he's come back into the fold has been amazing and you can see how much he has relished his return to the squad. It means such a lot to him.
He's worked so hard to come back from knee surgery and captain Wasps the way he has, He’s taken his England opportunity with both hands.
Another back-rower but I have to say Robbo as well. He always does the right things and he's passionate about us doing well and coming across well.
Billy Vunipola picks his three best experiences in an England shirt.
- Against Wales eight days ago is right up there. Going there and coming away with a win when a lot of people didn't think we would was great. I was so happy with the result and the way the game went.
- Singing the national anthem next to my brother for the first time, on my first England start. It was against Australia at Twickenham. And my parents were there, too. That was the dream, right there.
- Facing the haka for the first time was an amazing experience, and getting the chance to play against New Zealand at Twickenham. For a rugby player, it doesn't get much better than that.