Vunipola says taking a knee a 'personal choice' for England players

Rome (AFP) –


Billy Vunipola has said England's players will decide individually whether to take a knee ahead of a Six Nations international away to Italy on Saturday.

Officials have left a gap between the national anthems and kick-off at Rome's Stadio Olimipico in which players can demonstrate their support for rugby union's campaign against racism.

But this could involved gestures other than the taking of a knee, which is associated the Black Lives Matter movement.

Saracens back-row Vunipola, who opted against taking the knee during this season's English Premiership, said England players had discussed the issue before last week's match against the Barbarians was called off following breaches of coronavirus regulations involving members of the invitational club's squad.

"It's been an ongoing discussion, not a one-off," Vunipola told a conference call.

"We talked about it the first week we got in. Obviously, we approached it before we were going to play the Barbarians.

"I think, like anything in life, it is a personal choice. The leaders made that clear and made everyone in the room comfortable with what they wanted to do.

"We're here to respect each another's decisions, different or the same. That's where we've left it and you will probably see that tomorrow."

Saturday sees No 8 Vunipola, whose career has been blighted by injury, returning to England duty almost a year to the day since his last appearance in a World Cup final defeat by South Africa in Japan.

England could yet take the Six Nations with a thumping bonus-point win over perennial strugglers Italy, if the result of a match between title rivals France and Ireland later Saturday falls in their favour.

But Vunipola, a member of an England side that just fell short of a title-winning 26-point margin against France in a frantic finale to the 2015 Six Nations, said England ought to concentrate on establishing a platform before worrying about the scoreboard.

And that meant subduing an Italy pack where Gloucester back-row Jake Polledri poses a "massive threat."

Vunipola is renowned for his ball-carrying but with the likes of Tom Curry alongside him in England's back-row, the 27-year-old was looking forward to being involved in a collective effort.

"We've got dynamic carriers next to me," he explained.

"We've got Curry, who is a freak. He's a back-row but he's just as fast as our wingers, so it's about cooperating with everyone else and not focusing solely on what I'm doing, but more what I can do to help the team."