England players will get chance to take a knee against racism before Italy clash - but it will be 'a personal choice'

Charlie Morgan
·3-min read
England players walk off after training - GETTY IMAGES
England players walk off after training - GETTY IMAGES

England’s players have been left to decide whether or not to take a knee in recognition of rugby union’s stand against racism prior to their Six Nations match against Italy on Saturday.

There is to be an allocated time slot prior to the national anthems at the Stadio Olimpico and, after speaking about the matter as a squad since convening earlier this month, individuals will be able to mark it in a manner they see fit.

Billy Vunipola, who opted against kneeling in support of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to Premiership matches last season, explained that England’s leaders have made each player comfortable with their own choice.

In the Premiership, players were allowed to make a personal choice whether to take a knee or not - PA
In the Premiership, players were allowed to make a personal choice whether to take a knee or not - PA

“It’s been an ongoing discussion, not a one-off,” said the 27-year-old. “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.”

Vunipola returns at the base of England’s scrum for his first Test start since last year’s Rugby World Cup final defeat against South Africa in Yokohama.

Six Nations 2020: England team to face Italy
Six Nations 2020: England team to face Italy

A veteran of England’s last final-game points chase in the Six Nations, against France back in 2015, he highlighted hard-carrying Gloucester back-rower Jake Polledri as a “massive threat” for the hosts.

Without the injured Manu Tuilagi, Eddie Jones has assembled a midfield of Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph with Anthony Watson and Jonny May on either wing.

On the back of impressive outings for Saracens against Leinster and Racing 92, Vunipola is sure to be a focal point for England’s attack.

“I’m not too sure – I’ve never really thought about it like that,” said Vunipola, when asked whether Tuilagi’s absence has altered his role.

Six Nations 2020: Italy team to face England
Six Nations 2020: Italy team to face England

“Having Manu there obviously takes a little bit of weight off my shoulders and everyone else's. He’s one of those players who you just give him the ball and he’ll give you gain-line ball by himself, not with any options inside or outside of him.

“I guess the onus will be on myself to bring that but also what do I need to do to help the team, and that’s make decisions of when to carry and when to give the ball to someone else and that comes down to trusting the people around me.

“We’ve got dynamic carriers next to me. 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.”