'Everything in Tonga is probably the same as it was in 1888... that is the way we love it'

Billy Vunipola is excited by the prospect of playing his first Test against Tonga two decades after his father lined-up for the Pacific Islanders against England in the World Cup.

Vunipola will start Sunday’s Japan 2019 opener at No8 as the nations clash in only the third instalment of a narrative that began when Billy’s father and uncle ran out at Twickenham.

Fe’ao and Elisi were on the wrong end of a 101-10 hiding that day, but the occasion left a lasting impression on a wide-eyed six-year-old who was born in Australia but had spent long spells in Tonga.

“It was such a surreal time for me and my brother Mako as we had just got off the plane and were straight into a World Cup,” Vunipola said. “We just took it in our stride by following my dad around to Twickenham.

“I remember Twickenham being like a spaceship because it was so big compared to anything we had ever seen coming from Tonga. We then watched them against the All Blacks at Ashton Gate and we saw Jonah Lomu up close getting on to the bus. It was pretty awesome. He was just excited to see us as kids, which says a lot about him.”

Eight years later and the Vunipolas had settled in Bristol via a spell in Wales and this time the extended family gathered together to watch the next meeting between England and Tonga around the household TV.

“I remember it because after the game we had to go for a run. We and my brother and my cousins had to go for a run and we used the Tonga game as an excuse to get out of it,” Vunipola said. “And then, when they lost my dad was a bit annoyed and everyone reminded him that we had to run. So we had to go and run! I remember watching that game. I remember Tonga doing all right but I always had an inkling that England had too much.”

In financial terms, the Pool C clash on day three of the World Cup is a giant mismatch with England stars earning £25,000 a week while Tonga’s players are given only around £330. And the build-up to this tournament points to a similar chasm on the pitch after New Zealand amassed 92 points in Hamilton on September 7. 

Vunipola, however, has warned that Tonga are a different proposition when on the global stage. “I know what it’s like for them to take on England because I have had the same mentality,” Vunipola said.

“They have a lot of pride. You can just go back through the history – Tonga has never been colonised and that fact has been fed down through to me and my dad. I know that my dad thinks they could have beaten England in 1999 – even though they lost 101-10.

“That’s just the way they are and that helps me a lot to prepare for games. They will say all week that we don’t respect them, but we do. The New Zealand game was one of those when nothing was on the line. When you play them in a friendly it’s not the same. They will be a different beast come Sunday.