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Where next for Israel Folau?

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PRO 14    

Past the point of no return: Where to next for Israel Folau and Rugby Australia?

The past 48 hours in the global rugby community have been turbulent to say the least given the repercussions that have come with Israel Folau’s ill-advised social media outburst.

Players have had their contracts terminated for all sorts of reasons over the course of time, but a player of such talent and stature within the international game being dumped for inciting hate speech so publicly as Folau has done is unprecedented.

As was the case when Folau first lambasted the gay population around this time last year, his polarising Instagram and Twitter posts, shared on Wednesday, were met with a landslide of controversy and outcry from leading rugby stars, sponsors and influential figures worldwide, while also catching the attention of media personalities and even politicians.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison today joined New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the ever-growing chorus of voices in condemning Folau’s statements, but it was yesterday where the full impact of Folau’s words were uncovered.

While his comments last year went largely unpunished – a stern warning was dished out by Rugby Australia following a meeting with CEO Raelene Castle and New South Wales chief executive Andrew Hore – it’s apparent that Folau’s relationship with both organisations has become untenable.

As a result, Castle and Hore released a statement on Thursday announcing their intentions to sack the 30-year-old.

Raelene Castle/ (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

From a purely rugby perspective, it leaves both parties from either side of the sacking in a difficult situation.

Folau was regarded by many as a player who Australia’s World Cup hopes depended on in Japan later this year, such is the aerial threat and destructive ball-running ability that he possesses.

Last weekend, he became Super Rugby’s leading all-time try scorer after towering above the defending Melani Nanai to pluck the ball from the air and slam it over the tryline to score his 60th competition try during the Waratahs’ 32-29 loss to the Blues at Eden Park.

It exemplified why he is regarded as the best player under the high ball in world rugby, and why he would have to be in the conversation for one of the best in that facet of the game the world has ever seen.

Combine that with his freakish ability to pierce through opposition defences with ball in hand thanks to his outstanding physical stature and supreme athleticism, and it must be a bitter pill to swallow for Wallabies fans to see him go as they prepare for rugby’s global showpiece event in five months’ time.

As Alex Shaw highlighted yesterday, there are plenty of options on the table for head coach Michael Cheika and fellow selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor to replace Folau with.

Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Kurtley Beale and Tom Banks all have cases for selection, but none have the complete athletic, ball-running, aerial package that the 73-test veteran offered.

Cheika and the Wallabies have a very tough job on their hands in finding a suitable candidate to fill Folau’s role within a five-month timeframe, but it is a job that is necessary as Castle and Hore made the right call to cut ties with their star man.

Not only is it the correct decision from a moral and ethical standpoint for a union that is trying to embrace inclusivity and diversity as it fights to stay relevant within the Australian sporting landscape against other codes such as league, AFL and football, it was a correct decision from an employment perspective.

Folau signed a high-paying four-year deal with Rugby Australia last October which reportedly included clauses regarding the use of his social media accounts following last year’s incident.

Additionally, by signing that new contract, Folau agreed to abide by RA’s Code of Conduct, which, in Part Two under the players’ agreement, includes the following:

  • 1.3 – Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.
  • 1.7 – Use Social Media appropriately. By all means share your positive experiences of Rugby but do not use Social Media as a means to breach any of the expectations and requirements of you as a player contained in this Code or in any Union, club or competition rules and regulations.

Although it is reassuring to see the stand against Folau’s outburst by some of the game’s top players and leading politicians, it only takes a brief scroll through various social media channels to see the views of those who disagree with RA’s morals and ethics by releasing Folau.

For everyone who has opposed his anti-gay stances, many have leapt to Folau’s defence as they question his right to freedom of speech, regardless of how deplorable it may be.

Yes, Folau has the right to speak his mind just as anyone else does, but, by contractually binding himself to treat all people from all walks of life as equals, both in reality and on social media, means that there are employment consequences that come with making those posts.

Regardless of whether anyone is for or against what Folau stands for, Castle and Hore are well within their rights to dismiss him, especially as it’s the second time he’s breached their code.

It won’t entirely stamp out bigotry within the rugby landscape, but RA’s stance against Folau at the second time of asking is a strong one that sends a message that no player is bigger than the game, regardless of how vital they are to any one side.

As for Folau, his rugby-playing career is almost all but dead.

You can bet no Super Rugby club will want to take him in in the foreseeable future, and given the recent comments made by UK-based players such as James Haskell, Joe Marler and Gareth Thomas, as well as that of Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, a move to European rugby seems unlikely.

Even the Southern Kings, who were willing to drop upwards of 20 players in their pursuit to sign Julian Savea and Jacques Potgieter from Toulon earlier this week, will be wary of doing the same for Folau.

Despite reported initial interest from the North Queensland Cowboys to fill the hole left by disgraced fullback Ben Barba and the NFL-bound Valentine Holmes, Australian Rugby League chairman Peter Beattie has said Folau is unwelcome to return to the NRL, where he began his code-hopping career 12 years ago.

A two-year stint in the AFL with Greater Western Sydney in 2011 and 2012 was largely unsuccessful, and it’s unlikely the AFL would want anything to do with Folau in the wake of this drama.

However, no formal statement has been made by those in charge of that code regarding their standpoint on the matter, meaning it could still be an option should Folau want to take it.

Before any career decisions are made, what Folau needs first and foremost is support.

His publicised opinions are absolutely objectionable, and, if he hasn’t already, will probably become the target of a raft of abuse for his hurtful and damaging hate speech.

That’s the result of his own doing, but it’s cost him his career, which – and most rugby fans will agree – is incredibly disappointing for someone who was such a brilliant player and lit up the field on a week-to-week basis.

He’ll need some time off to assess what the future holds for him next, but at this stage, he’s past the point of return for not only most rugby clubs, but most, if not all, codes of football, bringing the curtain down on the career of one of the most talented players of this generation.

Watch – Folau in hot water again:

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Past the point of no return: Where to next for Israel Folau and Rugby Australia?