TIPPING the scales at more than 20st, you would not imagine Billy Vunipola needs the comforting presence of his big brother.
But when England face Australia in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final in Oita, the hulking Saracens No 8 is delighted that elder brother Mako is restored to the front row for the biggest match of their lives.
Born in Australia of Tongan rugby- playing stock and raised in Wales during their formative years, the Vunipolas are now attempting to emulate Bobby and Jack Charlton as England World Cup-winning brothers.
And while Bobby and Jack were never club-mates and were not close, there’s a real warmth to the way Billy speaks about Mako — not that his elder brother ever reciprocates.
Billy, 26, said: “Mako takes a lot of pressure off me because he’s the elder brother, so anything that comes towards the Vunipolas, he usually takes the brunt of it — and I’m always just kicking back, as younger brothers do.
“I enjoy having him around, he’s like my shield. I thoroughly enjoy playing with him and I’m happy to see him back in the team. It definitely is a thing that I play better with him in the team — maybe subconsciously.
“It’s not something we think about but having my brother there gives me more space and time with my carries.
“He takes away tension because he is as much of a threat.”
Billy is fully fit after twisting his ankle against Argentina a fortnight ago, while 28-year-old Mako returns after a long lay-off because of hamstring surgery.
Yet the two brothers are not joined at the hip at England’s hotel in Beppu.
It was easier playing against him in the garden. On the pitch it was hard.
Billy said: “We have a funny relationship. Deep down, I think we really love each other but he’d never say it to me.
“I always say it to him — but he gets embarrassed and runs away.
“There is definitely that love and respect but we just do our own jobs.
“We don’t have to hang around and tell each other every day how much we care for each other, it’s just there. He’s family.
“We still don’t hang out, unless his little boy (one-year-old Jacob) is here. He is what brings us together, my nephew.”
The Vunipolas haven’t faced off as opponents since 2013 when Billy was sin-binned in a defeat for his Wasps side against Saracens, the club he later joined.
But Billy claims he did not feel sibling rivalry firing him up.
He said: “The last time I played Mako, a few weeks later I signed for Saracens.
“It was easier playing against him in the garden. On the pitch it was hard.
“I’d do something to him and people would talk about it. It was difficult, I didn’t want to tackle him, it felt really weird. Not long after, I signed for the same club.
“That’s probably how much it meant to myself and my family — I’d rather be with him than against him.
“We don’t do that competitive thing — unless we are playing video games, then I beat him all the time!”
Billy laid down the law to his England team-mates this week, reminding them that they would be flying home if they fail against the Aussies, a concept few of them had even considered.
He does, though, admit to becoming frustrated at being targeted by the opposition because of his immense ball-carrying threat.
Billy said: “It’s a compliment but it is different in these big games.
“There is a lot more going on and we have a lot more threats — the pressure that lies within this game is bigger than any other we’ve played.
“Hopefully that takes away attention from myself and I can get going.”
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Billy, in the England team dumped out of the World Cup in the group stages four years ago, believes the fluctuating fortunes they have experienced under Eddie Jones leave them in a good position to chalk up a first knockout victory since 2007.
He said: “The journey we have been on as a team has left us comfortable in this position. We know what success feels like.
“We have had some tough times and we have had some brutally honest times. We are going all right as a group.”