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'Definitely interested': Israel Folau eyes 2023 World Cup with Tonga

By Sam Smith
Israel Folau. (Photo by Gabriel Rossi/Getty Images)

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Controversial former Wallabies star Israel Folau is reportedly eager to play for Tonga at the 2023 World Cup in France.

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Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Ikale Tahi head coach and former Wallabies No 8 Toutai Kefu outlined his desire to bring Folau into the Tongan national set-up ahead of World Rugby’s vote on a potential eligibility law change later this month.

Rugby’s global governing body is set to meet on November 24 to vote on a proposal to allow players to represent a second nation.

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As things stand, internationally-capped players cannot play for a second nation they would otherwise be eligible to represent unless they stand down from test rugby for three years and play sevens for their second country in an Olympic qualifying event.

Given the quadrennial scheduling of the Olympics and its qualification events, opportunities for players to switch between countries are far and few between.

Weigh in the fact that players have to play sevens for their second country to become eligible for said nation at test level, and that effectively rules out those who play at prop, hooker and lock, positions that aren’t suited to the abbreviated format of the game.

The difficulty of which to switch international allegiance has allowed only a handful of players move between countries under the Olympic loophole since it came into effect ahead of the debut of rugby sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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Those players include former All Blacks Sevens playmaker Tim Nanai-Williams, who joined Samoa ahead of the 2015 World Cup, and ex-All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa, who is eligible for Tonga after playing at an Olympic qualifying event in Monaco in June.

Former Wallabies duo Lopeti Timani and Cooper Vuna have also become eligible for Tonga in recent years under the current system, with the former set to make his test debut for the ‘Ikale Tahi against England this weekend.

Folau, who earned 73 test caps for the Wallabies between 2013 and 2018 before his contract with Rugby Australia [RA] was torn up in 2019 over divisive social media posts, could join that list following a discussion with Kefu about his international future.

Since his messy departure from RA, Folau has bounced between rugby league and rugby union, turning out for the Catalans Dragons in the Super League and Southport Tigers in the third-tier Queensland rugby league competition.

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In July, the 32-year-old signed with the NTT Communications Shining Arcs to play in next year’s League One, formerly known as the Top League, in Japan in a move that will revive his professional rugby union career after more than two years out of the sport.

That deal could also pave the way for a return to the test arena, with Kefu telling the Herald that he and Folau are equally keen on the utility back turning out for Tonga should World Rugby vote to alter its eligibility laws later this month.

“We’d definitely be interested,” Kefu said. “We’re not in a position to bypass players of Israel’s calibre. We’d welcome him with open arms.

“I’ve had conversations with him already in the last six months. I actually caught up with him just before he left to go to Japan.

“I explained to him where we were at in terms of what’s happening with this revisiting of this new eligibility rule. He totally understands it. I said, ‘If they overturned this straight away, you could be available for us next year’.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I’m keen to go’.”

This isn’t the first time Kefu has spoken of his eagerness for Folau, who was born in Sydney to Tongan parents, to play for the Pacific Island nation.

In the wake of his axing from RA, Kefu told the Herald that he would “love” to have Folau in his playing squad, a sentiment he reiterated earlier this week.

“I think everyone would react quite positively,” Kefu said. “To see one of the greats back playing rugby is a real bonus in itself. I’ll ring him straight after they decide on November 24.”

A change to World Rugby’s eligibility laws has the potential to benefit Tonga immensely as Kefu said there are a raft of star players capped by other nations that he could lure from around the globe to play for ‘Ikale Tahi.

Among the biggest names of those potential prospects includes former All Blacks utility back Charles Piutau, who played 17 tests for the All Blacks between 2013 and 2015 before leaving New Zealand at the age of just 23 for the riches on offer in Europe.

Now the world’s joint-highest paid player, Piutau – the brother of former ‘Ikale Tahi captain Siale – would join Folau and other players in bringing plenty of firepower to the Tongan national squad should World Rugby tweak its eligibility laws.

“We probably stand to benefit the most out of any country, only because we have a lot of players who have played for New Zealand and Australia who are now plying their trade overseas,” Kefu said.

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