Billy Vunipola led a minority of England players who chose not to kneel against racism at the Six Nations today.
Scotland celebrated a rare victory in the annual Calcutta Cup in a virtually empty stadium in Twickenham, southwest London, as lockdown continues to ban spectators at sports matches.
Ahead of kick-off, the players lined up in support of the Rugby Against Racism campaign but not all players took part in taking the knee.
Seven England players stood up during the display and four Scotland stars took the knee while the rest remained standing.
The majority of England’s rugby players took the knee before kick off at Twickenham this afternoon but Billy Vunipola led a minority who chose to remain standing
Meanwhile four Scotland stars took the knee while the rest remained standing ahead of their victory in the Calcutta Cup this evening
Billy Vunipola was one of the England players who remained standing at the beginning of the game.
The number eight of Tongan descent was one of three England players who refused to take the knee in England’s 40-0 win against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup in November last year.
Speaking at the time, he told The Good, The Bad And The Rugby Podcast: ‘A similar situation happened with the Black Lives Matter movement last week when we were asked if we want to take a knee or not.
‘What I saw in terms of that movement was not aligned with what I believe in. They were burning churches and Bibles. I can’t support that.
Ahead of kick-off, the players lined up in support of the Rugby Against Racism campaign but not all players took part in taking the knee
Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs, Kyle Sinclair, Jonny May, George Ford, Elliott Daley, Mark Wilson, Willie Heinz, Tom Curry, Jamie George, Beno Obano, Maro Itoje and Anthony Watson were among the England players who kneeled
Vunipola (pictured with his wife Simmone at their wedding in Tonga) was embroiled in controversy in April 2019 when a post on his Instagram account read ‘Man was made for woman to pro create that was the goal no?’
‘Even though I am a person of colour, I’m still more a person of, I guess, Jesus.’
Ben Earl, Harry Williams, Jonny Hill, Courtney Lawes and Luke Cowan Dickie also remained standing during the game tonight.
Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs, Kyle Sinclair, Jonny May, George Ford, Elliott Daley, Mark Wilson, Willie Heinz, Tom Curry, Jamie George, Beno Obano, Maro Itoje and Anthony Watson were among the England players who kneeled.
For Scotland, Cameron Redpath was one of the four players to take the knee while the rest of the team chose to stand.
Scotland had to celebrate a rare away victory in a virtually empty stadium as lockdown continues to ban spectators at sports matches
England were humbled on home turf today as Scotland won their first game at Twickenham for 38 years
Scotland’s lock Jonny Gray (left) and England’s lock Maro Itoje compete in the line out during the Six Nations rugby union match between England and Scotland at Twickenham Stadium today
What is the Rugby Against Racism campaign and why do stars take the knee before games?
Rugby players started kneeling before games when teams returned to action in August last year following the first coronavirus lockdown.
The symbolic stance was popularised by American NFL player Colin Kaepernick and adopted by sports players across the world following the Black Lives Matter movement.
Premiership Rugby launched the Rugby Against Racism campaign in the same month as a commitment to making English professional club rugby more diverse.
A group of black players from across the league, plus Ugo Monye and James Bailey said at the time: ‘Together, we the players stand united in the fight against racism, and we are proud to support the positive message that Black Lives Matter.
‘We are not endorsing a political ideology. We are uniting as players to combat racial discrimination, in our sport and in society.’
Premiership Rugby Chief Executive Darren Childs: ‘Improving inclusion is vital for the progress and popularity of our sport and there is an urgent need for change.
‘I wholeheartedly support the measures set out in our Rugby Against Racism programme, and will be making sure these measures underpin Premiership Rugby’s strategy to make a tangible positive difference in our sport and society.’
The Rugby Football Union backed Vunipola, flanker Ben Earl and centre Henry Slade’s decision not to kneel during the game against Georgia in November.
At the time, the organisation said: ‘During the Autumn Nations Cup, Twickenham Stadium is featuring messages of support for Rugby Against Racism, Black Lives Matter and the NHS.
‘England’s men’s and women’s players and match officials are given the choice on how and if they wish to make gestures to help raise awareness for diversity and inclusion before the start of each game.
‘The RFU supports any players’ decision and equally believes the plans off the England stage are as important in driving necessary improvement and change across all areas of our game.’
Vunipola was embroiled in controversy in April 2019 when a post on his Instagram account read ‘Man was made for woman to pro create that was the goal no?’.
The 27-year-old was acting in support of Australia full-back and Christian fundamentalist Folau, who stated on social media that ‘hell awaits’ for ‘homosexuals’.
Vunipola subsequently received formal warnings from the Rugby Football Union and Saracens and he reflects on the episode by stating that although proud to have defended his faith, he would now take a more measured approach.
‘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 actually going to put myself in a position where people dislike me and ridicule me?’.
‘I didn’t enjoy being ridiculed, I really didn’t. But at the same time what I did find comforting is that I stood up for my faith and I didn’t just 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. I’d talk to whoever had any questions.
‘If it happened again now and I was asked, “Billy do you stand in support of it?” I would have to say yes because I’ve made my position clear.
‘The way Folau came out with it was very abrupt and direct. Sometimes the Gospel is direct.’
Scotland caused a major upset this evening as they beat defending champions England on the opening day of the Six Nations.
It is only a few months since the final fixtures of 2020’s tournament were played after the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe halted the competition last spring.
An eerie silence descended on Twickenham today, devoid of the fans and chants of Swing Low Sweet Chariot ringing round the stadium
The Six Nations kicked off with no fans today with England taking on Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at an empty Twickenham stadium
The game marked the 150th anniversary of the first ever Test, which took place on March 27, 1871 in Edinburgh.
Professional sport continues to be allowed to happen despite the strict third national lockdown still in force.
Last year’s tournament was abandoned ahead of the final round of matches as the pandemic started spiralling out of control.
The remaining games were finally played in late 2020 and England were crowned champions.
An eerie silence descended on Twickenham today, devoid of the fans and chants of Swing Low Sweet Chariot ringing round the stadium.
But one spectator would have caught the eye of the players – Warren Gatland, head coach of the Lions, who is considering his selection picks for this year’s tournament.