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Garden games marked beginning of Faletau and Vunipola story

Taulupe Faletau and Billy Vunipola - two of European rugby's headline acts - could top the bill in front of an 82,000 Twickenham crowd on Saturday.

But their rugby journey all began on a small patch of grass in a south Wales valleys town that gained sporting fame for producing Welsh international forwards like Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Terry Cobner.

Even then, though, the back garden games in Pontypool were full-on affairs as Faletau and Vunipola's brother Mako took on Billy and Faletau's brother.

Faletau's father Kuli had arrived from Tonga to play club rugby for Ebbw Vale in 1997, while Billy's father Fe'ao headed into Wales a year later, joining Pontypool, and their children soon began making a mark on the rugby pitch.

Taulupe, Billy and Mako were all part of the same East Wales Under-11s squad before their playing careers prospered either side of the Severn Bridge.

And while Saturday's RBS 6 Nations title eliminator between England and Wales sees Vunipola and Faletau as opposing number eights - and prop Mako on the Red Rose bench - memories of those childhood days are vibrantly fresh.

"Most of the mini games we had were in Billy and Mako's back garden," Wales and Newport Gwent Dragons star Faletau said.

"Billy and my brother against me and Mako, and we would spend our time playing rugby.

"We have driven past it a few times, to see the little patch of grass we used to play on, and I can't believe half the stuff we used to do on there.

"Thinking back, I thought it was pretty big, but going back now, I realise how small it was. We tried to do anything and everything. They were good times - and I reckon we won most of the games.

"We played in the back garden just for fun, and as we got older it turned into something I never thought would happen. I am grateful to have these opportunities, and the same applies to Billy and Mako.

"Growing up, it was all for the fun of the game. We always enjoyed throwing the ball around or going down the park trying to kick conversions, although I am not as good a kicker as those two!"

Saturday's clash pitches into the heat of battle Vunipola - England's top ball-carrier during this season's Six Nations - and Faletau, who has completed a staggering 51 tackles during the tournament and missed only two.

The pair keep in regular contact, and Faletau readily lavishes praise on a player who appears transformed under the guidance of new England head coach Eddie Jones.

"He has been outstanding," Faletau added. "He has probably been their best player, and he leads from the front.

"We will have a chat before the game, but when it comes to kick-off it's another game of rugby and he will be doing his best for his team, and I will do the same for mine.

"He seems to have had a new lease of life, and he's going well. We just have to get to him early and not give him much time on the ball. But it's easier said than done."

Saracens powerhouse Vunipola currently leads 3-1 in the career head-to-heads between them for club and country - further meetings can be expected next season when Faletau joins Bath - and they resume on-pitch rivalry this weekend just six months after Wales inflicted a damaging World Cup defeat on their traditionally-fiercest rivals at the same venue.

"We keep in contact off the pitch, but when we play against each other it's a game of rugby," Faletau said. "You don't really realise who is opposite you until after the game.

"They (England) have worked really hard on their attack, and so we have to get better in defence.

"It's all about the basics, really. Whoever gets them right on the day, and whoever wants it most, will be successful."

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