Former Wallabies star Israel Folau could return to the NRL as early as this year with at least one club in Australia’s premier rugby league competition reportedly set to make an inquiry about the cross-code star’s services.
According to a report from the Sydney Morning Herald, an unnamed club is preparing to approach Folau with a deal that would see him return to Australian rugby league for the first time since 2010.
The 31-year-old had his multi-million dollar contract with Rugby Australia torn up last year after he made posts on social media in what the organisation denounced as homophobic.
After receiving an undisclosed payout from RA following a lengthy legal battle which concluded in December, Folau switched back to rugby league by signing with France-based Super League club, the Catalan Dragons.
The UK league competition is currently suspended, however, with the coronavirus outbreak bringing the tournament to a halt after seven rounds of action.
The NRL is in a similar situation after their competition was postponed after just two rounds, despite resistance from the league’s officials.
An optimistic return date of May 28 has subsequently been set by NRL bosses, potentially with a shortened 13-week competition.
That would allow clubs one month to approach Folau to gauge an interest in returning to Australian rugby league before the competition’s transfer deadline of June 30.
The 73-test Wallaby made his first foray into professional sport when he made his NRL debut as a 17-year-old with the Melbourne Storm in 2007, before going on to join the Brisbane Broncos two years later.
Whether or not he would be welcomed back into the NRL is another question, though, with Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’Landys among those to publicly condemn Folau’s homophobic comments last year.
“The comments of Israel are not inclusive,” V’landys said. “Israel has to understand he is a role model … he has a duty. When I was at school and kids used to get bashed up because they were different, I used to go and defend them. I have no tolerance for people who put other people’s lives into violence or whatever.”
However, the SMH claims that there is growing support for a Folau return within NRL clubs, with 40 percent of club chairs and chief executives saying they would welcome the eight-test Kangaroo back into the competition under strict conditions in a poll undertaken by the newspaper prior to the season.
The former Queensland State of Origin star isn’t the only high-profile cross-code prospect being eyed up by the NRL.
The SMH also reports that former 70-test Wallabies first-five Quade Cooper would be willing to discuss a short-term deal with an NRL club if given the blessing by his current rugby union team, the Kintetsu Liners.
Cooper has been playing in Japan’s second-tier Top Challenge League alongside long-time teammate and halves partner Will Genia following a season-long stint with the Melbourne Rebels last season.
The 32-year-old has returned to Brisbane in recent times, though, and has been training alongside Broncos forward Tevita Pangai Jr at the club’s facilities in Red Hill.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 11, 2020
Cooper has previously spoken of his desire to play in the NRL, and attracted interest from the Melbourne Storm and Parramatta Eels in the early stages of his career.
The 2011 Super Rugby winner reignited talk of a possible code switch last December when he appeared on The Ice Project podcast, hosted by former New Zealand and Cook Islands rugby league representative Isaac John.
“I wouldn’t mind playing NRL either, just for one season or even just come and do some training with the lads to see what it is like,” Cooper said at the time. “If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I am happy with what I have been able to achieve, but if the opportunity arose I would love to do it.”
The SMH suggested Cooper could be used at either five-eighth or fullback by the Broncos, depending on how they want to utilise star playmaker Anthony Milford.
Iconic jersey that ? https://t.co/JkRcI0dCFc
— Quade Cooper (@QuadeCooper) April 7, 2020
All Blacks star Ardie Savea also used John’s podcast to express his interest in moving to rugby league earlier this year.
“Strategically I would want to go to a team that was dominating, like the Storm or Roosters,” Savea said in February. “One hundred percent I want to play rugby league, I think they do a lot more in terms of off the field stuff … and also, just a new challenge. I want to test myself.
“Learning a whole new game and seeing if I can dominate, or play the way I play in union, that excites me. Seeing guys like Sonny [Bill Williams] do it kind of plays on my mind a bit.”
The Hurricanes loose forward’s deal with New Zealand Rugby expires at the end of 2021, but the SMH reports that Savea could use the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to try out rugby league in a short-term capacity, with huge doubts surrounding the feasibility of both Super Rugby and international fixtures this year.
The newspaper also indicated that Savea could be joined by former All Blacks teammate Williams, who switched back to rugby league for the third time in his decorated career late last year after signing a two-season, $10 million deal with Super League newcomers, the Toronto Wolfpack.
Sandwiched between two World Cup-winning campaigns with the All Blacks, the 34-year-old won NRL premierships with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters in 2004 and 2013, respectively.
Williams, Savea, Cooper and Folau were among a raft of names from both union and league tossed up as potential targets for NRL clubs by the SMH.
Other individuals named by the Australian media outlet includes Wallabies utility back Kurtley Beale, former England and British and Irish Lions midfielder Ben Te’o and cross-code Waratahs star Karmichael Hunt.
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