Wellington may be far-flung for most British and Irish Lions but for huge prop Mako Vunipola, who grew up dreaming of being an All Black, it is a return home.
Vunipola, who will pack down against Owen Franks in the second Test at Westpac Stadium on Saturday, was born in Wellington 26 years ago and with his size and skills could well have been an All Black had his family not moved to Britain.
The powerful, 121 kilo (19st) loosehead recalled Friday how, in his younger days, he always imagined himself as an All Black, and rampaging Jonah Lomu in particular.
“I wasn’t that old, maybe eight or nine. When I was growing up I used to watch the All Blacks and be in love with them, mostly because of Jonah Lomu obviously him being Tongan heritage.
“I always wanted to be like him. Being born in Wellington as well. I had a lot of family over here. This is actually the first time I’ve been back since I left as a child.”
With his size, even as a youngster, Vunipola was steered towards the front row by his father, former Tonga captain Fe’ao Vunipola, who likened him to ironman All Blacks prop Olo Brown, who played 56 Tests in the 1990s.
But that was lost on a boy who only had eyes for Lomu, the phenomenon who died two years ago following a kidney ailment.
“He used to joke around calling me the next Olo Brown when I was younger. I didn’t have clue who he was,” Vunipola said.
Although England prop Vunipola is a popular member of the Lions, video footage emerged several days after the first Test showing him grabbing Franks between the legs in a scrum.
The incident went unnoticed by the referee and there were no complaints from Franks.
Vunipola said it was not malicious as he was just trying to bind to avoid being penalised.
“Either I bind there or I drop my arm and it’s a penalty to them so I’d rather grab them (testicles) than grab nothing.”
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