Sapporo: Billy Vunipola knows he will be the cause of split loyalties when England open their 2019 World Cup campaign against Tonga in Sapporo on Sunday.
Not only are Vunipola’s parents Tongan, his father Fe’ao, a hooker, and uncle Elisi, then the captain and fly-half, played for Tonga against England at the 1999 World Cup.
That match, which Billy watched, saw England enjoy a 101-10 win after Tonga had prop Ngalu Taufo’ou sent off after 35 minutes for punching.
Billy and brother Mako were raised in Wales and England and the latest generation of rugby-playing Vunipola brothers opted to represent the Red Rose.
“I am Tongan, my parents are and my grandparents are, so it will be very emotional,” said Billy Vunipola.
“I have to get my head right. With the country there will be split loyalties,” the powerhouse No. 8 added.
“They want Tonga to win and I want England to win.”
Billy Vunipola will be the only member of his family involved in Sunday’s match as Mako, an England prop, continues his recovery from hamstring surgery.
Tonga coach Toutai Kefu, when told Vunipola still felt Tongan, quipped: “Well he should be playing for us then.”
Jones has picked his strongest available side for a match title contenders England are expected to win well against a Tonga team who only a few weeks ago suffered a 92-7 thrashing by reigning world champions New Zealand in a warm-up match.
Jones said there was no question of taking Tonga lightly, hence a midfield trio of George Ford, captain Owen Farrell and dynamic centre Manu Tuilagi, with the likes of Vunipola and Maro Itoje powering the pack.
“I think World Cups are about always picking your strongest team, for that game,” said Jones. “That’s the only game we’re worried about.”
Meanwhile, With Rob Kearney and Keith Earls out, it’s as certain that Ireland’s relatively novice backfield will be provoked by Scotland on Sunday.
Kearney and Earls have leg niggles that didn’t allow them to be risked in the Rugby World Cup opener for both teams in Yokohama, leading to Ireland picking Jordan Larmour at fullback and Andrew Conway on the right wing.
Scotland playmakers Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg are rubbing their hands in anticipation of creating havoc.
Kearney and Earls have a defensive and positional nous from playing together for Ireland for 11 years that can’t be replicated by Larmour and Conway, who have been backups for two years. Also, their understanding with left wing Jacob Stockdale is still dawning.
“I’m sure they have a kicking game coming,” Larmour said. “With Bomber (Conway) and Jacob (Stockdale), we’ll be chatting to each other all day.
“We think that anything they throw at us, we can solve as a team together and problem-solve together.”
Catch the Matches
Italy v Namibia, 9.15am
Ireland v Scotland, 11.45am
England v Tonga, 2.15pm
All matches broadcast on BeIN Sports