EXCLUSIVE Exeter No 8 GREG FISILAU grew up with the Vunipola brothers and has enjoyed a flying start to his Premiership career… now he wants Billy’s England shirt!
- Exeter star Greg Fisilau hopes to follow in the footsteps of the Vunipola brothers
- Fisilau represented England at junior level and a senior call-up could soon follow
Mako and Billy Vunipola have already become players from Tongan lineage to make it to English rugby’s highest level and now another young man with Pacific Island blood hopes to reach the top. Greg Fisilau, 20, is making waves with Exeter Chiefs after moving to Sandy Park following the demise of Wasps.
Fisilau’s father, former Plymouth Albion centre and Tongan international, Keni, grew up alongside Fe’ao Vunipola, whose sons are Mako and Billy.
Fisilau, a No8 like Billy, now hopes he can one day follow in his footsteps. The pair are not direct relatives but acquaintances who refer to each other as family.
‘They’re not really cousins but that’s what we call them in Tongan culture, they’re just people you grow up with,’ says Fisilau, speaking to The Mail on Sunday for his first major newspaper interview. ‘I grew up with Manu Vunipola and Carwyn Tuipulotu, too. We were all pretty close. I was pretty young when I was growing up around Billy and Mako.
‘There was Taulupe Faletau as well. They were in the spot I’m in now when I was growing up. It was pretty cool to have them to look up to. It’s really good for me to have seen players like Billy, Mako and Taulupe doing as well as they have. It shows young Tongan players coming up through the ranks that it can be done.
Greg Fisilau is taking inspiration from the Vunipola brothers as he eyes an England call-up
The 20-year-old has made an explosive start to his senior career since joining Exeter last year
‘It makes you want to push yourself to the level they’re at. To fill Billy’s boots is a pretty big challenge for anyone.
‘It would be pretty surreal if that was to happen to me. An England cap is always going to be something most young players are striving for.’
As England look to the future and start planning for the next four-year cycle, national head coach Steve Borthwick has a plethora of young talent from which to choose.
Billy Vunipola, 31, is not done yet and Borthwick saw Ben Earl impress in the back row as England finished third against the odds at this year’s World Cup.
But Fisilau and Alfie Barbeary, who is standing out for Bath this season, are the next generation of No8’s coming through the ranks.
Fisilau was supreme as a young Exeter side recorded a famous Champions Cup victory in Toulon last Saturday and faces Munster today as Rob Baxter’s men look for back-to-back wins.
Fisilau’s commute to today’s game will not take long. The five-minute walk to Sandy Park from his accommodation at the hotel on the ground’s site was an unintended consequence of his last-minute move from Wasps after they entered administration in 2022.
‘It’s the shortest commute ever!’ Fisilau says. ‘The hotel is a nice spot, we’ve got ensuite rooms! It does get quite busy in the kitchen as we’ve only got one stove.
‘We’ve got to plan when to cook but it was worse at Wasps. We were in a big mansion — a 14-bedroom house. We had two washing machines, one stove and one dryer between 14 lads. It was carnage!
‘The kitchen didn’t stay clean for longer than half an hour. You’d come down to do your washing and there was always someone else using the machines.’
Fisilau is small compared to some of the giant No8’s — such as Billy Vunipola — who roam the rugby pitches at the game’s highest level in 2023. But boy does he pack a punch.
Fisilau grew up alongside Billy and Mako Vunipola and affectionately refers to the pair as ‘cousins’
He is agile and adept at the breakdown and is a fearsome carrier for his size. Exeter’s fans have already seen that in action this season.
Born in Plymouth, Fisilau moved to Oxford as a young boy and his rugby development began properly at St Edward’s School in the city and then with Wasps.
His father allowed him to take up rugby only from the age of eight as he believed playing touch rugby while a small child would teach him bad habits. The Fisilau family has always liked the contact element of the sport and their latest product was developing well in the Wasps first team.
Then, as for so many of his contemporaries in English rugby, it all came crashing down.
Fisilau lost his job when Wasps followed Worcester into financial oblivion but he and then team-mates Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Alfie Bell and Dan Frost were all soon snapped up by Exeter. The move happened quickly, hence the emergency hotel accommodation. Fisilau is still there.
The No 8 was one of several Wasps stars snapped up by the Chiefs when the club went into administration
‘It was tough for a lot of the lads and tough for me as well as I’d been at Wasps from Under-15s to 18 or 19,’ says Fisilau. ‘It was really heartbreaking to know the dreams I had of playing for Wasps were never going to happen again. My dad was a big influence on my career, probably the biggest. He’s pushed me at times when I didn’t want to be.
‘I was always surrounded by rugby. It was all I really knew. I was doing a lot of training with my dad as soon as I could crawl.
‘When it was time to get involved with a team, I was buzzing to get started as quickly as possible.’
Fisilau has never really looked back. His no-nonsense father still refers to him as ‘Gregory’. Fisilau brushed off a ‘freak’ foot injury suffered in the gym this year to return for the start of Exeter’s European campaign and is part of a young Chiefs side.
Already an England U20 international, a Six Nations call next month might come too soon for Fisilau but there can be no doubting his potential.
‘I feel lucky to have joined Exeter at the time I have,’ says Fisilau, whose uncle, Samisoni, played for Tonga at the 2015 World Cup. ‘There are endless possibilities for what we can achieve.
‘There is a really good buzz at training each day. Everyone is keen to learn. I feel really grateful to be a part of the journey we’re on. We’ve had a good start to the season.
‘Rob has said it a lot. It’s a group of young lads buying into everything we’re told. We want to get something out of this season and we’re putting everything into it. We’re starting to see results.’
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