The Offload: Billy Vunipola and an ugly week for rugby

BT Sport lionise Saracens number eight while Munster’s excuse just doesn’t wash

Billy Vunipola celebrates Saracens’ victory over Munster in Coventry. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty

Billy Vunipola celebrates Saracens’ victory over Munster in Coventry. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty

 

A great weekend for Saracens, a deeply damaging one for rugby

BT Sport brand themselves “the heart of sport”. They are certainly not the moral compass. The broadcaster had a difficult choice at the Ricoh Arena but, unlike thousands of gay teenagers they just drove away from rugby by lionising Billy Vunipola, they did have a choice.

The media machine craves a redemptive narrative and Vunipola gave it to them when ploughing over the Munster try line.

“Well, he’s learnt painfully the implications of pressing the ‘like’ button over the last week or so,” said commentator Nick Mullins misleadingly implying this was all Vunipola did wrong (The RFU and Saracens disagree). “It’s probably been the toughest week, 10 days of his life. But he’s doing what he does best today – playing rugby, playing for his mates, scoring tries that may well take them to the final now.”

Then, as Vunipola, basking in the hero/villain role, strolled towards booing Munster fans, many waving LGBT rainbow flags, with a wide grin the unbelievably tone deaf Mullins added: “He’s enjoying this. First time we’ve seen him smile for a while, I suspect.”

BT interviewer Sarra Elgan at least put it to Vunipola that the “storm” of recent days was “somewhat created” by his defence of Israel Folau’s homophobic hate speech. The English number eight’s defenders – chief among them being Stephen Jones of The Sunday Times – state he is not homophobic but what is he then? Vunipola inserted himself into this dangerous Christians against homosexuals war of words that continues to rage through rugby union. His Instagram post remains in place as does the unapologetic religious shield.

Great weekend for Saracens, another deeply damaging weekend for rugby.

Embarrassing

“Mortifyingly ignorant narrative on BT Sport today re Billy Vunipola, portrayed as some sort of victim. Get a clue. ‘Most difficult week of his life’ my backside, as his post match interview reminded everyone. Embarrassing.”

Alison Donnelly, Scrumqueens.com.

By the numbers

21 carries for 43 metres by Saracens hero Billy Vunipola.

Channel 4 and Gareth Thomas

Channel 4 are new to rugby coverage but they schooled BT Sport on the game’s salient issue. “Unbelievably unacceptable,” said Gareth Thomas, the former Wales and Lions captain who was recently assaulted due to his sexuality, about Vunipola’s words. “To say he means things with kindness and love, as an openly gay man myself, I don’t feel kindness and love from him agreeing with somebody that I should go to hell. It is a very easy thing to say sorry. It is very difficult to mean it. Billy has not defended his own words. His beliefs in them words has not changed.”

Note to Thomas: Vunipola did not apologise.

The fashionista Cork man who invaded the pitch after Saracens victory over Munster gave the big man a fright. “It was quite scary,” Vunipola told the BBC. “I’ll probably have to expect that it’s going to keep happening. I probably won’t be as honest as I have been about things that have hurt a lot of people. I know that now. It’s probably an insensitive comment to make but it’s something I strongly believe in. My faith is what got me to this position. It’s something I’ll stick by. It was quite a motivating factor that people were booing me. I wanted to back up my words and show my team-mates that I did not mean to distract them.”

How about Vunipola, Israel Folau, Nigel Owens and Thomas break bread together; rugby men having a conversation about inclusivity in 2019.

Munster’s excuse doesn’t wash

Neutrals present in Coventry on Saturday reported a nasty atmosphere cloaking the Champions Cup semi-final. The Munster clad character that approached Vunipola afterwards launched plenty of online jokes about his attire – deck shoes and shorts – but the province are keen to distance themselves from the man who was subsequently detained by security.

Initially, and perhaps regrettably, it was even suggested he could be a Saracens fan wearing Munster colours. That no longer appears to be a line of inquiry, if it ever was.

“Aligned with EPCR, Munster Rugby do not condone the entry of any spectator to the field of play,” they stated Sunday evening. “The incident following the Champions Cup semi-final at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday involved a spectator wearing a Munster jersey. The province wishes to confirm that the identified spectator is not a member of the Munster Rugby Supporters Club, and does not hold a season ticket with the province. Munster Rugby will investigate the incident further.”

Not one of ours doesn’t really wash (the jersey being a dead giveaway and who he appeared to temporarily confront). It happened and leaves a lasting image. What more investigation is needed?

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