Five months before the Rugby World Cup, England No. 8 Billy Vunipola was given a formal warning by the country’s governing body for supporting an anti-gay Instragram post by Australia player Israel Folau.
Following a meeting with the player, the Rugby Football Union said Vunipola’s conduct was “prejudicial to the interests of the game” and against its values of “inclusivity and respect.”
“The player expressed genuine regret at his public comments,” the RFU said, “and understood that he had caused hurt and offense as a result of his actions.”
Vunipola was also warned about his conduct by his English club, Saracens, on Monday, though he stopped short of offering an apology on that occasion, saying his beliefs are “a source of great strength, comfort and guidance in my life.”
With the warning staying on Vunipola’s disciplinary record for five years, any further misstep — or repeat of the kind of message he posted in defense of Folau — could jeopardize his place in England’s World Cup squad.
Folau was also issued with a warning by Australian rugby officials last year for posting anti-gay messages on his social media accounts. When he reoffended last week, by publishing a message on Instagram saying that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters,” Rugby Australia came down hard on Folau by terminating his contract.
It deprives Australia of one of its best players for the upcoming World Cup in Japan, but Australian rugby wanted to take a stand.
Folau was entitled to his religious beliefs, said RA chief executive Raelene Castle, but the way in which he expressed them “is inconsistent with the values of the sport.”
“We want to make it clear that he does not speak for the game,” Castle said.
In defending Folau — in a post on Instagram that has yet to be deleted — Vunipola said his fellow player was only trying to say that “how we live our lives needs to be closer to how God intended them to be.”
“Man was made for woman to procreate, that was the goal, no?” Vunipola said.
The 26-year-old Vunipola, whose mother is a Methodist minister, has faced a backlash from English rugby fans since his comments on social media. He was jeered during his appearance as a second-half replacement for Saracens against Bristol, who also played “It’s Raining Men” — a song widely perceived as a gay anthem — on their PA system.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said he will pick Vunipola for the team’s European Champions Cup semifinal match against Munster on Saturday even though he said he’s “sure there’s stuff going on in his head.”
British broadcaster Channel 4 has removed Vunipola as one of the faces of its Champions Cup coverage.
Vunipola is likely to be a key member of the England team heading to Japan for the World Cup starting September.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80