24 Jun 2017

Sport: Tonga Rugby CEO all in for Lions

1:20 pm on 24 June 2017

When the British and Irish Lions take on the All Blacks tonight in Auckland, a small corner of the Pacific will be cheering on the visitors.

This is Mako Vunipola's second Lions tour

This is Mako Vunipola's second Lions tour Photo: Photosport

Tonga Rugby Union Chief Executive Fe'ao Vunipola is one that will be backing the men in red.

His son Mako is starting at loosehead prop for the Lions.

The 26 year old Vunipola has anchored a powerful Lions pack and impressed in the early stages of the tour with his physical presence around the field.

He would almost certainly have been joined by his younger brother Billy in the test squad but the number eight had to withdraw from the tour because of a shoulder injury.

Interestingly enough, Tongan-born Wales international Taulupe Faletau, will start in the number eight jersey tonight.

Fe'ao Vunipola said this makes Billy's absence slightly easier to take.

"Although Billy is still injured, they have Taulupe so there are still two of them playing plus [Ben] Te'o of course from the southern hemisphere so it is all good."

Vunipola is immensely proud of his sons, both of who play for England.

"In the UK, playing for the British and Irish Lions is the pinnacle of anyone's rugby career and for them to make that is huge, particularly coming from such humble origins."

Despite coming from great Tongan international pedigree, father Fe'ao and uncles Manu and 'Elisi all played for the 'Ikale Tahi, both Mako and Billy were brought up in the UK, going to school there while their dad played club rugby.

Fe'ao Vunipola, who was capped 34 times, said playing professional rugby overseas is always something he hoped for his sons and for other Tongans as well.

Tonga Rugby CEO, former international and proud dad, Fe'ao Vunipola

Tonga Rugby CEO, former international and proud dad, Fe'ao Vunipola Photo: Tonga Rugby Union

"I wish my late father was alive so we could talk because that was his vision for the two boys," Vunipola said.

"That is one of the main reasons that pushes me to be here to help and facilitate or open doors of opportunity for the local boys like me.

"Either for them or for their children in the future for them to have such opportunities, like the ones our boys are currently enjoying and having."

And does Vunipola senior still give advice to his talented sons?

"Once in a while when I see a weakness in their game but there becomes a stage where I become redundant because they have their coaches, the best coaches they could have, performance analysts, so whatever weakness they will find they will talk about it," he said.

"All we do now is remind them of discipline and focus but when it comes to tactical or technical knowledge the coaches are doing more than enough."

As for his allegiances, they are firmly in the British and Irish camp alongside his son Mako.

But Vunipola admits it will be a hard task for the Lions.

"New Zealand is still the number one rugby nation in the world and everyone is chasing and wanting to follow suit."

RBS 6 Nations Championship Round 4, Twickenham, London, England 11/3/2017
England vs Scotland

Billy Vunipola proves a handful for Scottish defenders in the Six Nations Photo: Photosport