Still only 24 years of age and Billy Vunipola gets to publish an autobiography – evidence of what an impact he’s made since his try-scoring England debut in Salta four years ago.
And what a terrific book it is, exploring the Saracens No 8’s unlikely journey from the tiny Tongan village of Longo Longo to the England team via South Wales, Bristol, Harrow and Wasps.
There are a number of core strands in the book, aptly called Wrecking Ball, and none more powerful than the beatings he took from his father Fe’ao, both in terms of a fitness regime and punishments for bad behaviour.
Indeed, the book opens with a story about Billy and older brother Mako being forced to run home in front of the car because their dad felt they didn’t work hard enough in a game for New Panteg U11s. The brothers were ten and eight at the time.
It should quickly be noted that Billy approves of the tough love meted out by his father, and other lessons from his mum with a broom handle or wooden spoon. He was a difficult child and was treated in the traditional way.
Among a litany of his misdemeanours, none was worse than firing a gun in a science lesson – an action that earned him a two-week suspension from Castle School in Bristol.
The “running hell” he was subjected to – ten times up a hill in a blizzard is one lasting memory – helped combat the weight issues that Vunipola has experienced for most of his life.
He was once promised a trip to McDonald’s if he scored a hat-trick – with an inevitable outcome – and weighed as much as 152kg (almost 24st) when turning pro with Wasps. Nowadays he eats broccoli for breakfast and dates a dietician.
“Even though I’m now a healthy-eating evangelist, in the back of my mind I know I’m still a junk-food freak at heart” Billy Vunipola
Hand in hand with his size has always been extreme power, enough to break the ribs of teachers in training drills. Bristol got special dispensation to play him in their U18s when he was 15 and throughout his childhood, everything from school desks to the straw hats they wear at Harrow School had to be adapted to fit him. Being forced to play in older age groups – because it would have been dangerous to pit him against his own peers – meant he had to grow up fast emotionally.
One of the best passages concerns an incident that occurred when Billy was 12. He, Mako and cousin Anthony Maka were on their way to clean a church when they were targeted by a bunch of older racist yobs. Mako wasn’t one for turning a blind eye and the trio duly dished out some summary justice. And you thought that sort of thing only happened in films!
There’s plenty more we could say about this book – written in collaboration with Gershon Portnoi – on the big forward who’s currently in rehab after knee surgery. But why not read it for yourself? It’s published by Headline, RRP £20, and you’ll love it.
Headline have kindly provided us with six copies to give away. For a chance to win one, answer the question below and fill in your details. The competition closes on Monday 6 November.
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