Rugby World Cup: England's Billy Vunipola on his dad captaining Tonga in 1999 World Cup

England players Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola
Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola celebrated with their family after winning the European Champions Cup with club side Saracens
2019 Rugby World Cup: England v Tonga
Venue: Sapporo Dome Date: Sunday, 22 September Kick-off: 11:15 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live and online; text updates on the BBC Sport website and app; watch live on ITV.

The opening game of a World Cup is a special occasion for any player. For Billy Vunipola, lining up for England against Tonga in Sapporo on Sunday, there will be more emotion than for anyone else.

England and Tonga have met in a World Cup before - 20 years ago, at Twickenham. At fly-half for the visitors was Vunipola's uncle Elisi. At hooker - as captain - was his dad Feʻao. In the stands, staring in wonder at everything around him, were six-year-old Billy and his elder brother Mako.

"I think mum was scared we would get lost, so we weren't allowed to let go of her hand," remembers England's current number eight. "Twickenham seemed enormous.

"Mum was carrying my sister and me and my brother were holding hands. It was probably the last time we touched each other.

"I remember my mum being quite emotional before the anthems. Me and my brother just kind of copied mum.

"She was so scared of us getting lost in the crowd. Coming from Tonga and going there was just scary. We were so used to everything being small.

"It was our first time on a plane, so our first trip into London itself was the same thing: don't let go of each other's hands because you might get lost.

"Everything in Tonga was so laid-back that mum and my dad were nervous that we would go walkabout or that something would happen to us. They were very, very cautious."

Tonga struggled that day at Twickenham, a record-breaking 36 points from Paul Grayson contributing to a 101-10 hammering.

But it was the start of a month-long adventure that kick-started the Vunipola brothers' rugby journey from a small corner of the Pacific to northern Japan this weekend.

England player Billy Vunipola
Vunipola made his senior England debut during the tour of Argentina in June 2013

Vunipola told the Rugby Union Weekly podcast: "That's probably one of my biggest memories of a World Cup, following my dad around England, playing Italy at Welford Road, watching them play New Zealand at Ashton Gate and seeing Jonah Lomu close up, getting on the bus - that was pretty cool.

"When I heard the song World In Union at our welcome ceremony in Miyazaki this week, that was the first thing that came into my head - following dad around.

"And that's things that me and my brother maybe took for granted - that we were round rugby all the time, that we got to go to Twickenham, we got to go to Welford Road, to do all the fun things that loads of kids would dream of."

After that World Cup in 1999 - one that would end for England in the quarter-finals, when five drop-goals from South Africa's Jannie de Beer sent them packing in Paris - Vunipola's father, along with Taulupe Faletau's father Kuli, were brought over to Wales by Jonah Lomu's former agent Phil Kingsley Jones to play club rugby.

The family were reunited in the Pontypool suburb of Griffithstown, the boys and their three cousins fighting for one of the four beds in the converted garage.

Mako will be absent on Sunday, still recovering from the hamstring injury that forced him out of the warm-up match against Ireland. Billy will start as arguably England's most irreplaceable player, his muscular carrying an essential part of coach's Eddie Jones' physical gameplan.

England players Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola
Billy Vunipola with his brother Mako, who will miss most of the pool stage, meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace

"I'll be emotional at the anthems - I'm a very emotional person and I haven't played against Tonga before, and the first time it's going to happen is at a World Cup," Vunipola added.

"I've never stood opposite a team where I know the national anthem, or where I could be singing it. So it will definitely be one that will touch my heart, and we'll have to see how I react to it on the day.

"My heritage is something I'm unbelievably proud to represent. It's not one of riches or anything like that. It's not fancy.

"But that's probably why I love it so much, because when I go home everyone just treats me like I was the same kid that left, the same one that went to church and to school and all those little things.

"Every time I talk about it I always mention my grandparents, because it was always their dream to tell my dad, look, you'll have better opportunities in England than Tonga.

"It would have been easier for my parents to stay in Tonga, but they took the leap, and so every time we play we're representing everyone back home - the Tongan people, not just ourselves."

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