SAPPORO, 20 Sep - Billy Vunipola still calls himself a "boy from the Island" and is deeply respectful of his Tongan heritage, but this will not hold him back when he runs out at the Sapporo Dome on Sunday for England’s opening Pool C match.
Vunipola, pictured above, and brother Mako, who misses the match because of injury, have deep family roots in Tonga where their father Fe'ao captained the national team. It was his decision to accept a playing contract with Pontypool in Wales that set in motion a chain of events that led to both Vunipola brothers becoming England players.
Vunipola was educated at Harrow School in North London and while he fully embraced life in England, the ties with Tonga through his parents and their extended families have remained strong.
He returned to Tonga in June to marry Simmone in a traditional ceremony with large numbers of guests from his parents two villages.
The Saracens forward is confident his family will be cheering for him on Sunday even though the opposition are the national team.
"There won’t be split loyalties with my family but in the country there definitely will be, and you cannot blame them because they want Tonga to win and I want England to win," he said.
"This is the first time I have played against Tonga and it is different to playing Fiji because I am Tongan, so are my parents and grandparents so it will be very emotional.
"It will be important to get my mind and body right and prepare as best I can for Sunday. When I went back for my wedding, they didn’t ask about this match because Tongans don’t think past the next day. It was more a case of congratulating us on the wedding and packing food to take home.”
Vunipola and his brother met Jonah Lomu after New Zealand beat Tonga at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, thanks to their father being a member of the national squad at the tournament, and he remembers watching the England versus Tonga game at the 2007 Rugby World Cup on television in Bristol.
After Tonga lost, Vunipola was ordered to go for a run with his brother and cousins. "We used the game as a bit of an excuse to get out of it but when they lost my dad was a bit annoyed and we had to go out.
"Tongans are proud people and have never been colonised, and that has been fed down to me and I know that my dad thought they could beat England in 1999 and they lost 101-10. That is just the way they are, and it helps me prepare for games."
🎩👰🏻| More from @bvunipola & Simmone Jo-Anne Lewer’s wedding in Tonga. Congratulations again to the happy couple.— #RugbySaracens (@RugbySaracens) June 12, 2019
🎶 One Vunipola, there’s only...
Lots of Vunipolas, lots of Vuni-polaas 🎶
Pictures: @bazzbarrington & @scottspurling1. Good to see @AnthonyMaka1 there too. pic.twitter.com/wx3paoVGwL
Vunipola would relish the chance to play for England in Tonga and believes it would be a "unique" experience for his team-mates.
"Everything in Tonga is probably the same as it was in 1888 but that is the way we love it. I would love us to go there because it would encourage more people to take up the game and give them the kind of opportunities it has given me."
Vunipola remembers the boos from England fans following the decision to kick penalty goals rather than go for lineouts close to the Italy line in the final World Cup warm-up game in Newcastle and insists that pragmatism must play a part in Sunday's match.
He said: "We have to do things that may not be fancy to the crowd, a bit like the Newcastle game where we were booed for kicking for goal, but we were preparing for something bigger than that warm up match."