Newcastle – Billy Vunipola acknowledged that a starring role for Saracens was the only way he could come out fighting after criticism for defending Israel Folau’s claim that “hell awaits” gay people.
Both Saracens and the English RFU slapped Vunipola with an official warning after his Instagram post in support of the Australian full-back’s homophobic posting.
While some fans at the sell-out St James Park in Newcastle booed Vunipola when he was substituted late in the second-half of the European Champions Cup final against Leinster, the giant forward had already done the damage.
The 26-year-old scored a belter of a try, picking up from the base of a scrum and battering his way past a handful of defenders for a crucial 66th-minute score in Saturday’s 20-10 victory over the Irish province that saw Saracens to a third European Cup win in four seasons.
“It’s been tough, I’m not going to hide away from it,” Vunipola told rugbypass.com.
“I backed myself into a corner and the only thing I could do was come out fighting for the boys.
“That’s probably what spurred me on, trying to help the lads and take that pressure off their shoulders that I put on.”
Vunipola added: “There’s a lot of love in that changing room. I’ve felt that recently with everything that’s been going on. The way we look after each other makes a massive difference.
“Today I want to make it about the team. It’s not about me or what I stand for. It’s about the badge I represent and the players I stand with and who stand with me,” Vunipola told BBC.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall praised Vunipola for his contribution, telling BBC: “It’s obviously been a complicated five or six weeks, for him and for the squad.
“But what we needed from him was to do his talking on the field, not off the field. He’s been really good and his team-mates have supported him very well.”
Vunipola has a history of shoulder injuries and so it proved again against Leinster.
After his impressive drive for the line, the No 8 was subbed off seven minutes later, but was keen to play down a sore shoulder.
“My shoulder, it’s a bit of a stinger, hopefully it’s nothing worse,” he told rugbypass.com.
“I did it in the first half, but it was kind of a slow burner and when I did it again, it took the wind out of my sails.”
Another stand-out performer for Saracens was one-club full-back Alex Goode, the England reject named European player of the year following the final.
His latest accolade left many commentators again begging the question of how he does not feature in Eddie Jones’ England plans.
Winning just one cap under Jones’ reign, back in 2016, McCall has said he thought Goode merited a recall to the international set-up.
“He’s certainly played well enough to deserve (England selection), but that is someone else’s choice,” he said.
“It is (Eddie Jones’) prerogative.”