Black Lives Matter: Billy Vunipola says England players will choose individually how to mark movement

Billy Vunipola says England players will choose individually how they wish to mark the Black Lives Matter movement before Saturday’s match against Italy.

The game is their first opportunity to show solidarity for the cause following a seven-month interruption to Test rugby because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the anthems at the Stadio Olimpico, Six Nations organisers have scheduled time for a moment’s silence during which teams are able to demonstrate their support.

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Eddie Jones’ squad have been in camp for the past three weeks and their stance on the issue would have been clear at Twickenham last Sunday, only for their annual fixture against the Barbarians to be cancelled.

“We talked about it the first week we got in and we broached the matter before we were going to play the Barbarians,” Vunipola said.

“Like anything in life, it’s a personal choice and the leaders made that clear. They made everyone in the room comfortable with what they wanted to do to mark it and we need to respect each others’ opinions, different or the same.

“That’s where we’ve left it. You’ll probably see that tomorrow (Saturday). It has been an ongoing discussion, not just a one-off.”

Vunipola: I’ll do my talking on the pitch

Vunipola is keen to display a “happier version” of himself and do his talking on the pitch when England attempt to lift the Six Nations trophy.

Saracens’ No 8 has not appeared for Jones’ team since the World Cup final in November 2019 after suffering a fractured arm and his return was further delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In August he admitted he had his “head in the clouds” during that tournament, negatively affecting relationships amongst the team and with his brother Mako.

    However, the enforced down time has allowed the 27-year-old to reflect on his behaviour and he wants to help England beat Italy in Rome on Saturday, on a day his country can lift the trophy with a bonus-point win and if other results go their way.

      “I’ve had conversations with Eddie where we talked about just being a happy-go-lucky guy,” Vunipola said.

      “I think I got too bogged down with the whole pressure of the World Cup, the pressure of what Charlie asked there, being the go-to guy and not focusing on my team-mates and helping my team-mates.

      “I think hopefully you’ll see a happier version of me tomorrow. It’s been tough with the run of games that we’ve had at Sarries (Saracens), obviously not playing for anything, then we had two games where I guess our season kind of relied on.

      “For me, it sounds really, really cliche and I hate saying it, but it is about enjoying it. I think I just got too bogged down with all the details and I play best when I’m instinctive and decisive. So hopefully I can do my talking on the pitch and not so much off it.”

      To become Six Nations champions England would need to secure their bonus point against Italy, make up the 23-point deficit on Ireland, and then better any further points difference advantage Ireland might gain with a non-bonus point win.

      On the importance of winning the tournament, Vunipola added: “It’s massive. Our biggest thing is we want people to smile back home and we want people that are going through a tough time to be happy.

      “As much as we don’t want to talk about it, we want to play good rugby and we want to win something. We want to make sure that once you come off the pitch that we know we left no stones unturned.

      “I think that’s probably the biggest inspiration that we can provide for the country at the moment, is by giving them something to smile about with a trophy. Everyone smiles with a trophy.”

      George: 50th cap ‘very surreal’

      Meanwhile, England hooker Jamie George will make his 50th appearance for his country in Saturday’s clash.

      George has been made to wait over seven months to reach the landmark, with England having last played against Wales in March.

      “There were times when I thought I’d never get one cap, let alone 50, so it’s all very surreal,” George said. “I think the whole thing has been pretty surreal for me, to be honest.

      “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be able to play for my country 50 times, but as soon as you get a taste for international rugby you’re desperate for more and I certainly got that from my first cap.

      “I’m about to get my 50th and I’m still desperate for more and loving every second of playing for England.

      “I’m gutted that my family won’t be here. My fiancee isn’t going to be here either which is really upsetting, but I think at the same time they’re getting together with a couple of their mates, and my parents said they’d be raising a glass of champagne as I run out for my 50th which is really nice.

      “Throughout the whole thing they’ve always made me very aware of how proud they are, so I’m gutted that they can’t be here, but at the same time I know how much it means to them and hopefully they know how much they mean to me.”

        England team to face Italy

        England: 15 George Furbank; 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Henry Slade, 11 Jonny May; 10 Owen Farrell (c), Ben Youngs; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Tom Curry, 7 Sam Underhill, 8 Billy Vunipola.

        Replacements: 16 Tom Dunn, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Dan Robson, 22 Ollie Lawrence, 23 Ollie Thorley.

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