Vunipola: I stood due to religious beliefs
Saracens No 8 defends not taking the knee at the weekend England international also explains his backing of Folau
Billy Vunipola, the Saracens and England No8, has explained that he chose not to take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter ahead of Saracens’ game against Bristol because doing so would contradict his religious beliefs.
The Gallagher Premiership’s return last weekend saw a variety of displays against racism, with some teams opting to wear T-shirts or form huddles.
However, few Premiership sides as a whole opted to take the knee, aside from Wasps, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers. Vunipola was one of three players for Saracens who chose not to, alongside South African forwards Michael Rhodes and Vincent Koch, and the No 8 explained why when speaking to
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“What I saw in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement was not aligned with what I believe in. They were burning churches and Bibles. I can’t support that,” Vunipola said. “Even though I am a person of colour, I’m still more a person of, I guess, Jesus.”
Vunipola also touched on why he spoke out in support of Israel Folau last year, when Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia for homophobic posts on his social media accounts. Vunipola posted at the time – “Man was made for woman to procreate, that was the goal no?” – and was subsequently given formal warnings by the Rugby Football Union and Saracens.
“I could easily have been, ‘I’m not going to support this’,” Vunipola said. “I didn’t sleep for two or three days after I saw his post because something inside me was saying, ‘Do you actually believe in Jesus Christ or do you not?’. That was the challenge I was battling with, not what Folau had said.
“It was something that challenged me to step up to a level I’d never been before in terms of, ‘Am I going to put myself in a position where people dislike me and ridicule me?’. I didn’t enjoy being ridiculed. But what I did find comforting is that I stood up for my faith and didn’t fall by the wayside.
“[Now] I wouldn’t go about it the same way, it would be more of a conversation from my point of view. If it happened again and I was asked, ‘Billy do you stand in support of it?’, I would have to say yes as I’ve made my position clear.
“The way Folau came out with it was very abrupt and direct. Sometimes the Gospel is direct. But, we need to accept people for who they are and what they want to do with their own lives. It’s not for me to judge, it’s for God. At the middle of it all – to have forgiveness or to go to Heaven, or to not go to Hell – is believing in Jesus Christ and that’s what I wanted to get across.”
The number of South African players in the Premiership who opted not to take the knee in support of BLM received attention in that country over the weekend, with all eight of the Springboks who started for Sale Sharks against Harlequins remaining on their feet.
Nathi Mthethwa, South Africa’s minister of sports, arts and culture, revealed he had been in touch with SA Rugby president Mark Alexander to understand the players’ stance, whilst acknowledging the players had all worn “Rugby Against Racism” T-shirts.
He said: “You must remember we were together at the World Cup in Japan as a country with some of the players, and one thing which cannot be tolerated is when somebody is displaying racist behaviour and showing racist attitude. The president of SA Rugby said they are going to be having their own meeting and will make their views known.”
A response to Mthethwa by Renaldo Bothma, the retired Namibia international who was born in South Africa and recently played for Harlequins, offered an insight into the reasoning behind some players opting not to take the knee.
Bothma wrote: “I will never take a knee to anyone else than God! Where are all these ministers when we need to take a knee for farm murders in South Africa and take action against corruption? We all can decide what we want to do! Nobody has any right to force someone to go on their knees!”
Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond downplayed the talking point. He said: “Four of our players took the knee and the rest didn’t. It’ll be a storm in a tea cup.”
Personal choices: Billy Vunipola (left) and Michael Rhodes chose to stand, while others took the knee ahead of Saracens’ match against Bristol