"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."
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Billy Vunipola, London, Headline, 2018. ISBN 978 14722 43911The book tells the story of a Tongan family coming to Wales to enable the father to play professional rugby and how the two sons, Billy and Mako, went on to play for England. As the book states, to say that England is the total opposite of Tonga, would be the understatement of the century, with the family battling the temperature and the culture. One amusing adjustment was learning that in the UK, things actually started at the time they said they would.
Billy’s self descriptions are honest: “I was a bit of a nightmare. I just didn’t give two hoots about anything So if I broke anything, it wouldn’t bother me…I was always the naughtiest kid, the one to chat back to my parents, the one who had something right to say even though it’s wrong, just to challenge them…an annoying little so-and-so…everyone knew where the line was but I would always just carry on and take it too far”. Punishment was of the traditional kind and the book describes regular hidings, which hurt at the time but never stopped him from repeating the offence.
Billy was very aware of the colour of his skin and how this made him stand out in rural Wales. He describes one incident when he, his brother and an older friend were racially abused by older boys. His older brother and friend punched the living daylights out of the abusers, while Billy, too young to fight, rugby tackled his abuser and sat on him! Ironically he said that after the boys had stood up to the bullies, there was no move trouble and in fact they became friends.
An ability to play rugby was his way to acceptance in his new country. He describes one school game where he scored 4 tries, and kicked the conversions as well as two drop-goals. He added about that game, almost ruefully, “I’m just trying to explain how much fun I had back then when I was allowed to do that on a rugby pitch for the joy of just playing. There was absolutely no pressure”.
The boys’ father knew first hand the demands of professional rugby and instilled in the boys the importance of physical fitness, which was achieved by running. Billy writes: “A standard session of my dad’s at this time would begin with the ten laps of the pitches as a warm-up. For most people that wouldn’t have been a warm-up, that would have been the whole frigging workout. Not for my dad. Not when his son was wanted by England. He wanted to teach us a lesson that being a rugby pro is tough, brutal and uncompromising. Like running up the steepest of hills in the worst of weather”.
On occasions, on the way home from somewhere, Billy and Mako would be dumped out of the car 2 miles from home and told to run home. Once Billy got a red card – his father gave him a hiding for letting himself down – and then (as he was sent-off in the first half) made him run for 40 minutes so that his fitness did not drop.
His career progressed through a Welsh school, an English school, a scholarship to Harrow and training with Wasps while at Harrow, selection for England age-group to his first professional contract with Wasps, selection for England and leaving Wasps for Saracens. He found leaving Wasps very difficult, given that Wasps had nurtured him and given him his chance but he felt that Saracens offered a more professional approach to his career and welfare. Another advantage was playing with Mako as he admits he found it difficult to play against his brother and see him as just another opponent.
The book is mainly taken up with the story of how he became a professional rugby player with very little about playing at the top level. There are few descriptions of key games or insights into life as an England player.
He describes his teenage years as: “my life was all about three things faith, family and rugby. In that order. Religion is at the heart of every Tongan family’s life”. That involved going to church every Sunday as well as regular family devotions at home.
References to God are found all through the book but no clear picture of his faith emerges
When in an England youth game, the kick-off lands in the perfect place for him to tackle the catcher he says: “I’m going to be there at the exact same time he drops. I swear there must be a God. This is why I believe in God. This is too perfect. He must have arranged this for me”. In another place he writes: “There is no way that God would’ve given me this talent to play rugby only for me to have to retire at the age of eighteen”. Surely being a Christian doesn’t mean that you will never get cancer or a career-ending injury? Thirty of so uses of phrases like: “What the hell am I doing?” or “I’m nervous as hell” also seem strange in British Christian culture.
There is a chapter called “Losing my religion”, an account of his faith journey, which will enable the reader to judge for themselves.
A very readable book and a compelling story of how a lost little boy from Tonga battled against the odds to become an England rugby star.