Fan enters pitch to confront Billy Vunipola as Saracens reach European final after homophobia row
Billy Vunipola was on the score sheet and delivered a man of the match display as Saracens reached their third European final in four seasons after beating Heineken Champions Cup opponents Munster 32-16.
However, his performance was overshadowed by more negative reaction to his social media comments as Saracens’ England number eight was booed most times he touched the ball at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.
Vunipola received formal warnings from his club and Rugby Football Union in the past week after he posted on social media that “man was made for woman to procreate that was the goal no?”
He also liked a social media post from controversial Australia star Israel Folau that stated “hell awaits” for homosexuals.
A few rainbow flags – symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movements – were visible among a Munster-dominated crowd of just over 16,000.
Then a fan ran onto the pitch at the end of the match and appeared to confront Vunipola during the players' lap of honour.
The pitch invader appeared to gesture to the Saracens player with his fingers.
A spokesperson for European Professional Club Rugby said: "EPCR does not condone the entry of a spectator to the field of play.
"Following the regrettable incident at the Ricoh Arena, the spectator in question is currently being detained by the stadium authorities."
When asked about the incident after the game, Vunipola told the BBC: "It was quite scary.
"People say I put my foot in it, so I have to deal with it. It's not something I'm afraid of. I'll probably have to expect that it's going to keep happening.
"I believe in what I believe in. There was no intention to hurt anyone."— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 20, 2019
Billy Vunipola speaks after a Man of the Match performance. pic.twitter.com/aoE7wxeVQK
"I probably won't be as honest as I have been about things that have hurt a lot of people. It's probably an insensitive comment to make but it's something I strongly believe in.
"Behind closed doors I felt a lot of love, a lot of kindness shown to me. I am just very grateful to be part of this team.
"From my point of view, I believe in what I believe in. There was no intention to hurt anyone. I am just grateful to play."
Vunipola and Saracens will play in next month’s final against holders Leinster or French heavyweights Toulouse at Newcastle’s St James’ Park.
Fly-half Owen Farrell was the architect of their semi-final victory, kicking 22 points, while flanker Michael Rhodes also touched down during a dominant second-half team performance.
Despite wing Darren Sweetnam’s try, two Tyler Bleyendaal penalties, a long-range Conor Murray strike and JJ Hanrahan conversion, Munster suffered a seventh successive European semi-final defeat on their record 14th appearance in the competition’s penultimate knockout stage.
The stadium resembled a home match for Munster, with their fans considerably outnumbering Saracens’ supporters among a crowd that barely half-filled the Ricoh.
The Saracens minority immediately had something to cheer about, though, as Farrell kicked his team into a second-minute lead from 35 metres.
A Bleyendaal penalty drew Munster level seven minutes later, and although jeers accompanied Vunipola’s first touch of the ball, Saracens were quickly into their stride as a second Farrell penalty made it 6-3.
Farrell completed a penalty hat-trick in the 27th minute, but a second Bleyendaal strike quickly cut the gap again to three points.
Saracens continued to dominate in terms of possession and territory, yet too often they were let down by a combination of poor handling and resolute Munster defence that had centre Chris Farrell at its core.
Munster drew level three minutes before the break when Murray landed a penalty from just inside Saracens’ half, before a fourth successful Farrell penalty made it 12-9 at the interval.
Saracens skipper Brad Barritt did not appear for the second period and he was replaced by Nick Tompkins, but the English champions were not disrupted.
They scored the game’s opening try within three minutes of the restart when Rhodes rounded off a sustained spell of pressure.
Farrell’s conversion opened up a 10-point lead, piling pressure on a Munster side that had defended impressively, but lacked an attacking spark, before his fifth and sixth penalty successes made it 25-9.
Munster had conceded 10 points in four minutes, and they fell further behind as Farrell’s sixth successful penalty surged Saracens on.
💫 @Saracens are in the Final 👏— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 20, 2019
A dominant, brutal display from the English side as they book their place at St James' Park on 11 May 🏆@Munsterrugby exit at the semi-final stage once again, but what an arm wrestle we witnessed today 💪 pic.twitter.com/xuNU457xEC
But Munster rallied strongly early in the final quarter, setting up camp near Saracens’ line before wing Sweetnam scored a try and substitute Hanrahan kicked the touchline conversion.
Munster, though, could not find a way back, and Vunipola touched down eight minutes from time, with Farrell’s conversion ending the scoring and sealing an impressive win.