This weekend sees a phenomenal game featuring some of the world’s best stars. Quade Cooper, Alun Wyn Jones, Samu Kerevi and Aaron Wainwright will run out for the Barbarians on Sunday, coached by Eddie Jones.
On the other side, the World XV features international superstars like Charles Piutau, Michele Lamaro and Semi Radradra, coached by New Zealand World Cup winning coach Steve Hansen. It is set to be a phenomenal game.
But in the run up to this weekend, one man has taken the headlines. Israel Folau will start for the World XV, four years after his contract with Rugby Australia was terminated for statements about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Does Folau really deserve a place back in rugby, let’s take a look.
What did Israel Folau do?
Considering this all happened prior to Covid, it seems like a long time ago that we were talking about Israel Folau for the wrong reasons. He was at one point one of the best Fullbacks in the world, having made the move from Rugby League to Rugby Union in 2013 to join the Waratahs.
It was April 2018 when Israel Folau’s religious beliefs first became the subject of controversy. On Instagram, a follower asked him what god’s plan for homosexuals was. Folau replied “Hell… unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”. Such disgusting comments brought a lot of attention to Folau.
He made things worse by explaining his Instagram response by saying “My response to the question is what I believe God’s plan is for all sinners, according to my understanding of my Bible teachings”. Just a terrible way to try to defend something like that.
It would be pretty bad had things ended there, but Folau continued to say insensitive things. In April 2019 Folau reposted a meme that said “Warning Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolators, HELL AWAITS YOU. REPENT! ONLY JESUS SAVES”.
Rugby Australia quickly came out with a statement deeming the posts homophobic, probably because the posts were homophobic. Around this same time, Folau wrote a statement in Players Voice.
In the statement he said “Since my social media posts were publicised, it has been suggested that I am homophobic and bigoted and that I have a problem with gay people. This could not be further from the truth. I fronted the cover of Star Observer magazine to show my support for the Bingham Cup, which is an international gay rugby competition for both men and women. I believe in inclusion. In my heart, I know I do not have any phobia towards anyone”.
Rugby Australia’s response
By this point, Rugby Australia had already begun proceedings to terminate his contract. He was found to have breached Rugby Australia’s code of conduct for his homophobic comments and his career with the Waratahs and the Wallabies was ended.
Folau was not happy with this and launched his own legal proceedings for unlawful termination. Despite earning millions of dollars in his playing career, Folau set up a GoFundMe for this campaign, really the sign of a good person there.
Eventually a confidential settlement was agreed after Folau was been asking for $14 million, which was laughed at by current and former Wallabies.
What has he been doing since
Less than 12 months after having his contract terminated by Rugby Australia, Folau switched codes back to Rugby League, signing a one year deal with the Catalans Dragons in the Super League.
After 15 games with the Dragons, he returned to Rugby Union, signing for Japanese club Shining Arcs Tokyo-Nay Urayasu. He is still with the side today and has scored 15 tires in his first 17 games for the team. Folau has also made a return to international rugby.
Due to World Rugby’s rule change that allows a player to switch international team’s after a three year period, Folau became eligible for Tonga. He was first selected for the Tongan team in 2022 and made his debut against Fiji where Tonga were held scoreless. This Sunday will see him return to Twickenham.
He will play alongside new Tongan teammate Charles Piutau in the backline of the World XV.
As there has been a lot of media attention on the inclusion of Israel Folau, the man who picked him has had his say. Former All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen is the head coach of the World XV and has spoken in defence of Folau.
Hansen has said “I know by picking him that there will be some people hurt and I get that. However, I want those people to understand that Israel’s belief and views are not ours. And we don’t agree with them”. It is true that there are a lot of people who will be upset by Folau being in the team.
Should Israel Folau be welcomed back to rugby?
In simple terms, we don't think so. There is absolutely a place for harmful and offensive opinions in rugby. Religion has always been a big part of rugby and that is not likely to change. But there is a big difference between someone’s religious beliefs and those beliefs becoming harmful and discriminatory.
At the moment, rugby is struggling financially. They need to expand the audience and having divisive figures playing in the biggest games is probably not the best way to make the sport more inclusive.
Rugby is doing it’s best to try to distance itself from Folau’s views. For example, the pride flag will be raised at Twickenham on Sunday for the Barbarians vs World XV game. It is a nice touch from the organisers, but still pretty confusing considering Folau is still going to be playing.
We don’t think there is any place for Israel Folau in international rugby anymore. His views are hateful and we haven’t really seen any remorse from Folau. Steve Hansen said it himself, picking Folau is going to upset some people. While the majority of those involved with the sport do not agree with Folau’s beliefs, his stance means he should not have a place in rugby at the top level.