Billy Vunipola will not forsake social media in World Cup despite Folau furore
Billy Vunipola has no plans to stay off social media during the forthcoming World Cup in Japan despite the controversy sparked by his support for Israel Folau – who has since been sacked for his homophobic outburst. Vunipola refused to discuss his specific Instagram post and the furore it prompted in April, stating only that he will not “expand on” nor “take a step back” from his stance, with the England international adding: “I have made my position clear.”
The Rugby Football Union will not place any restrictions on England’s social media use at the World Cup – indeed, Eddie Jones was recently extolling its virtues – but while all players will receive guidance before heading to Japan, Vunipola’s insistence that he will not impose any ban on himself, as he did during the Six Nations, has the potential to cause the union a headache.
Future posts as incendiary as Vunipola’s in April – stating that “man was made for woman to procreate” as he offered support to Folau – are unlikely because he is at pains to avoid unwanted distractions for his England teammates but there remains a sense of lingering stalemate.
Both the RFU and Saracens gave Vunipola a formal warning in April but while he expressed regret for causing offence and insisted that his faith is “deeply personal” he has not apologised nor removed the post. Speaking at England’s World Cup training camp in Bristol, he did not address questions specifically about the post but again struck a tone short on contrition. “I think we have talked about it at length, not just me, but the RFU and the people at Saracens,” he said. “We came to a conclusion that this issue, that people say I brought on myself, is better off left alone. I have made my position clear and what I don’t want to do is become a distraction to the players around me.
“If I was a boxer and it was just me that I was affecting, I would sit here and answer your question. But it doesn’t just affect me. It affects the coaching staff [and] the players, because you will be asking their opinions on it. It is firmly what I put out there and it is firmly on me, but at the same time I don’t want to put them under the cosh by saying this, this and this – because that is unfair to them.
“I want it to be known that you guys know where I stand. I’m not going to expand on it or take a step back. That is not me being stubborn, but me not wanting the players to be affected by it as it is not fair on them.”
Whether Vunipola’s social media activity – either in the past or the future – proves a distraction for England in Japan remains to be seen. In the aftermath of his initial comments he was regularly booed by opposing fans and he was confronted by a pitch invader after Saracens’s Champions Cup semi-final win over Munster.
Things had died down somewhat by the end of the domestic season but Vunipola has yet to represent England since then and Jones issued a thinly veiled warning earlier this month.
“That was dealt with by his club and dealt with very well by the RFU,” he said. “So Billy now when he comes in he is a married man, he’s on England duty and we expect him to follow the values of the team, and I’m sure he will.”
Vunipola was married in Tonga before joining up with England and he is unlikely to receive anything but a warm reception in their opening World Cup match – against the Pacific island – on 22 September. “It would be the first time against Tonga if I play. It would be very emotional, even thinking about it now,” he added. “It’s where we come from, where we grew up. It would be even better to play them in Tonga, that would be crazy. Hopefully in the future that could happen.”
Japan will be Vunipola’s second World Cup but his only start in 2015 came in the disastrous defeat by Wales, before injury struck. After that tournament he lamented the squad’s failure to bond off the pitch, claiming: “You want to get to know someone on a deeper level,” and that the best way to do it is “when you go out to the pub, have a drink and break down barriers”.
Vunipola is confident, however, that England will not make the same mistakes four years on. He said: “It’s something that we are definitely working on and something we have a lot of growth to make up in. It’ll take us to a position where we can be really successful. That’s somewhere with England where we’ve kind of always been lacking.”