England Rugby World Cup ace Vunipola ‘used to question if mum and dad loved him’

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England star Billy Vunipola has earned a reputation for being a tough nut to crack on the pitch, but away from it, the Rugby World Cup ace has displayed a far more vulnerable exterior than some might believe. To rugby fans, Vunipola is known as the 6ft 2, 126kg outspoken Saracens star who once fell out with Steve Borthwick before his grovelling apology saw him return to the team four years ago, and he turned his life around after some soul-searching.

Born in Australia to Tongan parents, he represents England at international level after qualifying on residency grounds. He moved to Wales with his family as a young child after his father Feʻao Vunipola signed for Pontypool RFC in 1998, with his mother, Iesinga, was a Methodist minister in High Wycombe.

Like his 32-year-old brother Mako – also an England international – Vunipola Jr found his calling with rugby. He turned out for local side Thornbury RFC before being given a scholarship to attend Harrow School, and it was there where he made an impression in front of scouts. In 2012, he was snapped up by the academy of Wasps, the now-extinct London rugby club.

But growing up, things weren’t always easy for Vunipola after constantly finding himself being reprimanded by his parents. Only later in life did he realise that their strictness with him was derived from their care for him, as Vunipola admitted he used to doubt if they loved him at all.

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“I remember growing up, being told off by my mum and dad,” he said in an interview with The Times in 2018. “I used to question if they truly did love me, because they always told me things I didn’t want to hear. But you grow up and realise they just wanted the best for you. That’s something I’ve learnt from and truly appreciate.

As well as drinking heavily and staying up late, the England No 8 admitted he veered off from the path that his parents had put him on and an intervention convinced him to stop: “I started doing silly things, just normal things that kids do. Going out, not recovering, staying up late, all the stupid things that come with drinking, doing things I probably shouldn’t be doing,” Vunipola added.

“I’m uncomfortable talking about it even now. I was bragging, [being] arrogant, things I’m truly sorry for, living a life that was opposite to what I’d grown up knowing, what I was taught by my parents.”

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After suffering from spate of injuries, which included fractured arms and surgeries on his shoulder and knee, Vunipola has learned how to take better care – and his war marks often prove to be an effective reminder.

“You can tell the difference with my scars, the way they’ve healed,” he said. “If I look after my body, my body will look after me. Yeah, I’ve looked after my body this time. Those are the lessons I’ve learnt.”

Vunipola once had a falling out with Borthwick in the lead-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup when the Saracens man made some comments to the then-Test team assistant coach. Vunipola made the effort to apologise to Borthwick when he was appointed England coach, something he appreciated at the time from back-rower.

“I think it shows the character that he has been so open and honest publicly,” Borthwick said in August, via RugbyPass. “That shows the character of the man. I think as a situation by the fact that it has played out is bigger than what it actually is in reality, but I think he is an important figure in this squad.

The 30-year-old may be given the day off as Borthwick prepares to rest some of his stars for their bronze match against Argentina on Friday, having also missed the 27-13 victory in their World Cup opener back in August.

After the game, some seven weeks down the line, Vunipola and England are set to make the short trip home back from France after their agonising semifinal loss.

But the life lessons along the way will help Vunipola recover and the pain of their defeat, in what was likely to be his final World Cup appearance, should gradually dissipate.

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