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Vunipola gears up for family affair

This weekend’s clash against Newport Gwent Dragons is London Wasps’ first venture in a European competition this season but the game has a more personal meaning for 20-year-old Wasps back row Billy Vunipola.

Vunipola will line up against his cousin, Toby Faletau, with both players starting at number eight.

“We grew up together when my parents first came over. During the 1999 World Cup, when both of our Dads were playing, they had camps back in Tonga and we lived together for quite a bit. I was actually with him two weeks ago and I told him to take it easy on me when we play them!”

“Near the end of my Dad’s career both of our Dads played together for Tonga. His Dad had the opportunity to come over and then my Dad came over a little while after. Because it was such a small community we became very close and then we found out that his Mum and my Mum were related so we became even closer.”

Billy’s father, Fe'ao Vunipola, earned 34 caps for Tonga, captaining his country on numerous occasions including the 1995 and 1999 World Cup campaigns. His Dad also had five brothers, all of whom played for Tonga, while Billy’s grandfather also represented the nation. With Billy’s older brother Mako at Saracens it is clear that top-flight rugby is nothing new to the Vunipola family but Billy says that he feels like he is only just starting to find his feet.

"I am still young and I am still getting used to the pace of the game. I think the weight that I lost over the summer is really helping my game but I am aware that I don’t want to lose too much. I knew that I didn’t have as much time in preseason because I was away with England at the Junior World Championship and so during my off time I did a lot more than I would have done normally which I think has helped my game, and I feel like I can last 80 minutes now.

Vunipola has been undoubtedly one of the standout players in the opening 6 rounds of fixtures, topping the statstics table for both offloads and tackles at some point, but the 19-year-old says that he doesn’t pay much attention to stats.

"I’m just trying to play my game, if there is an offload on I will give it and if it is not then its not. I’m not too sure about the stats, I don’t really look out for them. I think that in England in general the use of the offload is something that is being looked at more and more.”

The Wasps back row has been boosted over the summer with the arrival of James Haskell and Ashley Johnson, and Vunipola says that the competition for places in the backrow has helped the team as a whole.

“I think the strength in depth, especially in the back row, is having a positive impact on the whole team and is making the whole team play better, not just the back row. I think that the boys are really stepping up because if they don’t they won’t be picked the next week.

I think that having Ash [Ashley Johnson] here is massive, both on and off the pitch. He has been a great help to me with little stuff, technical stuff that he has picked up, and I have learnt a lot from him. He is a really nice guy which really helps!”

Vunipola says that he has also enjoyed the input of Brian Noble, who took two full sessions with the squad last week.

“Brian Noble has helped a lot with our tackling technique, especially when we are tired. I think that some of the boys, me included, are quite loose when we are tired. We are working on our defence under fatigue and having to defend for long periods of time, like we did in the Worcester game.”

“I think that one of the few positives that came out of the game at the weekend was the defence and the way that it held up under so much pressure. If our defence were to be at that level and we pick up our attack to the level we expect we will be in a good place.”

“Winning games is what it is all about and if we can string a few wins together it will be huge for the team’s confidence and our momentum.”

Tickets for this weekend’s game against Newport Gwent Dragons at Adams Park, KO 20:10, are still available. To secure your place use the Online Ticket Office or call the Ticket Office on 0844 225 2990.