Tuesday 15 October 2019

Villain of piece Vunipola proves to be an unpopular match-winner

Saracens 32 Munster 16

Billy Vunipola, supported by Maro Itoje, looks to the referee to confirm he has gone over for Saracens’ second try despite the efforts of Munster’s Jeremy Loughman. Photo: Reuters/John Clifton
Billy Vunipola, supported by Maro Itoje, looks to the referee to confirm he has gone over for Saracens’ second try despite the efforts of Munster’s Jeremy Loughman. Photo: Reuters/John Clifton

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The Ricoh Arena may have been half-empty, but it was incendiary all the same as hate came to the Heineken Champions Cup.

Billy Vunipola invited it to the party with his decision to support of Israel Folau's stated belief that gay people are sinners, destined for hell, over social media.

Darren Sweetnam slides in for the Munster try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Darren Sweetnam slides in for the Munster try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The battle lines were drawn before kick-off when Saracens fans cheered when Vunipola's name was announced over the tannoy, while his every touch was booed by the travelling fans from Ireland - some of whom carried rainbow flags to reinforce their point.

Reprimanded by the RFU and sanctioned by Saracens, the back-row was backed by his team-mates and coach Mark McCall who refused to comment before and after the game.

Given his ability, Vunipola was always going to have a crucial role between the white lines and he was central to the English side's relentless power-game, carrying 21 times for 43 metres and scoring his side's second try.

Gestures As he walked back into his own half to the sound of a chorus of boos from the Munster fans, he made a series of gestures in the direction of the stands and the volume increased. From a competitive field, BT Sports picked him as their man of the match and framed it as a tale of redemption.

Darren Sweetnam of Munster Rugby is tackled by Alex Goode of Saracens. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Darren Sweetnam of Munster Rugby is tackled by Alex Goode of Saracens. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

The award gave the broadcaster an opportunity to ask questions of the man at the centre of the biggest story in rugby. Vunipola was asked about how tough his week had been since he chose to express his views and to send a message to those he'd offended.

"I believe what I believe in. There was no intention to hurt anyone... I'm just grateful to be able to play, to be fit and hopefully we'll see those guys in the final," he said, doubling down.

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On his 'lap of honour', he was met by a man in a Munster jersey who had invaded the pitch. Once the spectator had been detained, and later banned from the stadium, Vunipola continued as the abuse rained down from the stands where fans confronted one another and stewards were called to intervene.

An unpleasant finish to a day when the villain left with the spoils.

Saracens - A Goode; D Strettle, A Lozowski, B Barritt (capt) (N Tompkins 41), L Williams; O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth 75); M Vunipola (R Barrington 63), J George (J Gray 75), T Lamositele (V Koch 59); M Itoje, G Kruis (T Lamositele 80); M Rhodes (S Burger 75), J Wray (W Skelton 58), B Vunipola.

MUNSTER - M Haley (D Goggin 51); A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, D Sweetnam; T Bleyendaal (JJ Hanrahan 54), C Murray (A Mathewson 74); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 61), N Scannell (R Marshall 67), J Ryan (S Archer 51); J Kleyn (B Holland 61), T Beirne; P O'Mahony (capt), J O'Donoghue (A Botha 67), CJ Stander.

Ref - J Garces (France)

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