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Israel Folau declares interest in playing for Tonga ahead of 2023 World Cup

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

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Divisive former Wallabies star Israel Folau has declared his interest in playing for Tonga ahead of next year’s World Cup in France.

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It’s been three years since Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia [RA] in 2019 for a homophobic social media post in which he said “hell awaits” gay people and others he considers sinners.

Following a lengthy and well-documented legal battle, Folau was paid a reported multi-million dollar sum by RA, who he took to court for unfair dismissal under employment legislation that bans sacking someone because of their religious beliefs.

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Since then, the 32-year-old returned to rugby league, where he first began his triple-code sporting career, plying his trade in Europe’s Super League and, for a brief period, in Queensland’s lower divisions.

However, the 73-test utility back has returned to rugby union, having signed a two-year deal the NTT Communication Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu in Japan Rugby League One.

Folau has flourished for his new team, with the all-time Super Rugby try-scoring record holder living up to reputation by scoring eight tries in seven matches for the bottom-placed side in Japan’s top division.

Now the former NRL and AFL star is keen on a return to international rugby, which has been made possible by World Rugby’s change of eligibility laws that enables test-capped players to represent a second country.

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Players can only switch international allegiance once following a stand down period of three years, and they can only play for a second country if they, their parents or their grandparents were born there.

Under that criteria, Folau – who last played for the Wallabies in November 2018 – qualifies to play for Tonga, his parents’ nation of birth, with immediate effect.

Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu last year expressed an interest in acquiring Folau’s services for the ‘Ikale Tahi, and now the man himself has outlined his desire to play for the Pacific Island nation.

“Representing your heritage and where you’re from, representing your parents is something that is quite close to not only myself but to many other Polynesians,” Folau said in an interview with AFP.

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“It would be a huge honour if I got the opportunity. We’ll see if that opportunity comes about but I’d love to put the Tongan jersey on and represent Tonga.”

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The availability of Folau, and other former internationals, has the potential to turn Tonga, along with Pacific neighbours Samoa and Fiji, in global rugby powerhouses.

Former All Blacks such as Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa, Vaea Fifita, George Moala and Augustine Pulu are all currently available, or will soon become free, for Tongan selection, as will ex-Wallabies Sekope Kepu and Adam Coleman, among others.

That’s a prospect that excites Folau as Tonga prepare to continue their World Cup qualification fixtures later this year, with ‘Ikale Tahi heavily favoured to qualify as the Asia/Pacific representatives in Pool B alongside the Springboks, Ireland, Scotland and Spain.

“It’s only going to raise the standard across the board of world rugby and strengthen those tier-two nations,” he told AFP.

“It’s going to strengthen Tonga, it’s also going to strengthen Samoa, Fiji – all those guys will be available to represent their nations.”

Folau added that he has moved on from his saga with RA, one of numerous controversial chapters in his career, such as when he suggested that bushfires and drought in Australia were “God’s judgement” for the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion.

“I have no regrets about anything but it’s led me here to Japan and I’m grateful for the opportunity,” he said.

“I’m just stoked to be playing rugby again. It’s a different experience to what I’m used to back in Australia but it’s something that I’m really enjoying.”

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