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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Rugby Union - By Ben Coles

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

the The Good, The Bad and The

Rugby pod­cast.

“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

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