LLOYD SPACEY was literally knocked off his feet when he first came across the special talent of Mako Vunipola.
The Castle School PE teacher knew from the first training session he took with Vunipola, who was 13 at the time, that he would play international rugby and was proved right when the 20st prop made his England debut in the 54-12 win over Fiji last Saturday.
Spacey recalled: “I was holding the scrum pad and he came steaming in and knocked me off my feet.
“Technically he was really advanced and I had a feeling from the first training session that he was something special.”
Vunipola made history when he came on in the second half of the first autumn international at Twickenham as the first person to have attended The Castle School and come through the ranks at Thornbury Broncos Youth Rugby Club to go on and play for England.
“We are very proud of him. The fact that he is the first one is great and we are all behind him,” said Spacey.
“What singled out Mako more than others was his determination to learn. He wasn’t that fit but he managed to get very fit due to his own self discipline.”
Vunipola comes from a strong rugby background. His dad Fe’ao played in two World Cups for Tonga, while six of his uncles and his grandfather also played international rugby for the Pacific Islanders and his cousin Tony Faleteau currently plays for Wales.
He moved to Thornbury when his dad, who is currently coaching the Tongan national team, joined Welsh side Pontypridd and his mum became a minister at Thornbury Methodist Church.
The 21-year-old now lives in London after joining Premiership giants Saracens in the summer, while his younger brother Billy plays for London Wasps and has also been tipped to play for the England senior team in the future.
Spacey stays in regular contact with the family and remains close with Mako and Billy due to his role coaching England under-20s.
He said: “They both had really good knowledge of the game due to their father.
“It makes me feel really pleased that they’ve been recognised for their hard work and determination.”
Thornbury RFC senior committee member Geoff Sprackman was team manager of the Broncos side that Vunipola played for and was proud to see him make his England debut.
It hit home for Sprackman when the camera panned to Vunipola during the national anthem before the game.
“When he came on it was brilliant,” said Sprackman.
“It was a little bit of a slow start but within a few minutes he got to grips with what was going on. If he gets the ball he takes some stopping.
“I was very proud and I knew Thornbury Rugby club would be.
“Back in the day on the touchline I would have a packet full of tissues because every game I would be mopping up his nose bleed.
“He had excellent ball handling. Whenever you saw him outside of rugby he always had a ball in his hand.
“Now seeing him play for England makes you feel quite humble to have known him.”
Sprackmen is now hoping Vunipola’s rise will encourage more youngsters from Thornbury to follow in his footsteps.
He said: “Having people playing at the level he’s playing is definitely inspiring for the youngsters and they’re thinking ‘that’s where I want to go.’ “Billy will play for England as well. To have two brothers playing for England would be fantastic.”
Vunipola has retained his place in England’s 23-man squad for the Test against Australia this Saturday.