COVENTRY – Billy Vunipola ended a difficult week off the field by producing a man-of-the-match display as Saracens beat Munster 32-16 in a European Champions Cup semi-final at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena on Saturday.
The England No. 8 was repeatedly jeered by Munster fans days after the back-row was warned by his club and the Rugby Football Union for publishing a controversial statement on social media.
Vunipola said “man was made for woman to pro create that was the goal no?” on Instagram and he also liked a post from Australia’s Israel Folau that stated “hell awaits” for homosexuals.
But although fans of the English champions were vastly outnumbered by supporters of the Irish province, their cheers could still be heard when Vunipola went over for a try in the 72nd minute that confirmed Saracens’ victory.
And as he walked back to celebrate his score, he appeared to gesture towards the Munster fans who had been taunting him.
“Behind closed doors this week, I felt a lot of love and kindness and I am very grateful to be part of this team,” Vunipola told BT Sport.
“From my point of view, I believe in what I believe in and it was never my intention to hurt anyone,” he added after a win that saw Saracens into a May 11 final in Newcastle against either title holders Leinster or Toulouse, who play on Sunday.
Munster, like Saracens, two time-European champions, have now lost 10 of their tournament record 14 semi-finals.
England captain Owen Farrell, who missed the quarter-final win over Glasgow because of the birth of his son, kicked 22 points for 2016 and 2017 European champions Saracens, who only led 12-9 at the break following a tryless first half.
But Michael Rhodes’ converted try and two more penalties from Farrell meant Saracens, unbeaten in Europe this season, pulled clear to 25-9 in a 13-point burst early in the second period.
Munster cut the deficit through Darren Sweetnam’s try but Saracens still had plenty in hand.
Saracens opened the scoring with Farell’s second minute penalty.
Sustained Munster pressure led to outside-half Tyler Bleyendaal’s equalising penalty in the 10th minute but Farell claimed a six-point advantage with two more efforts by the 26th-minute.
Bleyendaal cut Saracens’ lead to three points again in the 31st minute.
With three minutes of the half to play Munster and Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray levelled the match at 9-9 with a superb long range penalty from 47 metres only for Farrell to nudge Saracens ahead again in stoppage time.
Brad Barritt did not return for the second half but Saracens made light of losing their skipper with the first try of the match.
Flanker Rhodes picked an excellent line to take a short pop pass from scrum-half Ben Spencer and charge in as Munster’s attention was distracted by decoy runners.
Farrell converted and then rubbed salt in Munster’s wounds with two more penalties.
When Munster, in desperate need of a try, opted for an attacking line-out off a penalty, Saracens held up the drive led by centre Chris Farrell and gained a defensive scrum metres from their line.
But they lost control of the setpiece and Munster worked the ball across field to send in wing Sweetnam for a 61st-minute try in the corner, converted by replacement JJ Hanrahan.
At 25-16 behind, Munster still had hope but after a run by Strettle and drive by Richard Barrington, Vunipola powered his way over the line from close range.AFP