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RA, Folau should make peace

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Rugby Australia should make peace with Israel Folau

Rugby Australia, Israel Folau, their respective supporters and observants all sit on the precipice of the great unknown as tomorrow sees the commencement of a two-day disciplinary hearing that may, or may not, see the sacking of Israel Folau as a result of his controversial use of social media.

There will be no winner regardless of the outcome. If Rugby Australia is to be victorious and terminate the contract it has with Israel Folau, they, and their supporters may have won a moral battle of sorts. Clearly, there is no room for bigotry or homophobia in a modern, diverse and inclusive society.  If victorious, does that now mean there is no room for conservative Christian values in a modern, diverse and inclusive society? If so, what impact would that have on the code in Australia?

Whilst Rugby Australia and social engineers pour onto society the joys of diversity and its ‘embracement or else’ attitude, what does that say to those who actually support Israel Folau? Sorry, we are diverse up to the point of perhaps not including you. Sorry, you can practice your religion; you can even use social media, but we don’t approve of certain biblical passages, so don’t post them with truncated interpretations otherwise you are to be excluded. But it’s ok to like those posts, that won’t get you sacked per se. Is this not censorship manifest?

In April, I wrote a piece for RugbyPass titled ‘Rugby Australia vs. Israel Folau; A fight that the game does not need‘. In that article, I posed the question: Has Rugby Australia considered what impact that may have on other persons of faith within the Australian Rugby Community? Particularly those of Polynesian heritage? Have they considered other persons of faith within the Wallabies themselves who overtly draw the cross of Christ on their wrist tape?

When the social media post that ignited this saga was first published it was ‘liked’ by fellow Wallabies Samu Kerevi, of Fijian heritage, and Alan Alaalatoa, of Samoan heritage. Since then, Kerevi and prop forward Taniela Tupou have both made comments about the issue. Clearly, this Folau hearing is impacting the broader Wallaby player group of Polynesian heritage, and whilst there has been nothing significantly controversial published in support of Folau by his fellow Polynesian players, I have been credibly advised that Folau is strongly supported by a number of his playing Polynesian brethren. If he is to be sacked, what will be the ripple effect on not only the Wallabies, but the Polynesian community and its relationship to the game of rugby in Australia?

I am friends with a member of the Polynesian community who is legally trained, a former first grade rugby player who now works with Polynesian youth, and posed some questions to him on the Israel Folau issue. His response:

How the standing down has affected the community, in particular, the youth?

“Firstly, it is important understand the context and see through the eyes of Polynesian Youth (PY). There are two significant aspects of most, if not all Polynesians, family and religion. For PY, aspiring to become a professional athlete playing rugby is more than throwing the ball, scoring incredible tries, getting smashed or annihilating opponents.  Although this is fun, it is not their focus. PY see this an opportunity to assist their family out of poverty, bring great honour to their family and pride to the land of their ancestors.

“Polynesians have a Collectivistic culture therefore; the greater good of the family trumps the desires of each individual. As a result, if a PY possesses the ability and talent to accomplish this, it becomes their obligation. To assist with this mandate, the PY, siblings and parents make significant sacrifices, and exercise great faith. Having limited financial resources, PY families live off bear minimum to support this greater good, and rely on God’s grace to provide for them each day.

“Over many years, PY will observe their parents make many considerable sacrifices. Hear them consistently and faithfully praising God, pleading him to watch over and strengthen you. When a PY cracks it, the family recognises God’s hand in their journey, and rejoices and praise God both secretly and openly for his love and mercy for the ability to accomplish the greater good of the family.”

So, has this [the Folau saga] affected the youth? 

“Most definitely. Understanding the context and how God plays a major role, it isn’t difficult to know why. In speaking with several youth regarding this matter, one commented ‘Its absolute crap! It is a big part of who we are and I don’t know any Poly’s who don’t believe in God…. Hopefully, he is allowed to play’. Another commented: ‘It’s pretty bad, the Wallabies need all the help they can get and they go and do that’.

“Another youth was asked: ‘Do you think this has or likely to have any effect on youth looking to play rugby?’ That youth replied: ‘My coaches and teammates see me pray before and after every game, I hope they don’t ask me to stop because I can’t give my best out there’, with another saying ‘It could, because we might not make certain rep teams because I believe in God’.

Has it turned Christian Polynesians away from the game, or just the Wallabies?

“It has definitely created a negative vibe throughout the Polynesian community as you would expect… but mainly for the PY playing for Wallabies in future”

Being a Christian, what are your thoughts?

“In an attempt to prevent the arrest of Jesus Christ, one of his disciples used his sword and struck one of the servants cutting off his right ear. When this occurred, Jesus Christ immediately intervened, asking his disciple to put away his sword. He then stretched out his hand and healed the ear of the servant, who will moments later arrest him.

“When I think of this event and the way Jesus Christ reacted, I think of being mindful, inclusive and most of all, I think of love.  Millions of individuals have lost their lives due to the hatred in this world, and I fear that history is repeating itself.

“Having a legal background, I understand contracts and the importance of adhering to the agreed conditions. If there is a breach of a specific conditions, therefore the contract is breached and compensation or termination is optional by the affected party.

“If the panel members find Izzy guilty of breaching his contract, may Rugby Australia use this as an opportunity to be merciful on Izzy and teach him how to be mindful, inclusive and loving towards others with views that are different than his?  If Izzy isn’t found guilty and therefore has no case to answer, may he praise God for his grace and realise the wonderful example he can be by following Jesus Christ and being mindful, inclusive and most of all, showing love as he did.  God bless!”

My friend did not wish to be named as he told me: “As much as I want my name to be on the article, to protect the kids at my school as some of them were part of the survey I conducted. Sorry, I can’t due to protecting students.”

I found his response enlightening, but also found him as a harbinger for what likely awaits Rugby Australia if they are to sack Israel Folau. I think it would be disastrous, as he stated, “Has it turned Christian Polynesians away from the game, or just the Wallabies? It has definitely created a negative vibe throughout the Polynesian community as you would expect… but mainly for the PY playing for Wallabies in future.”

What is even more concerning for the code in relation to the Polynesian community is where many of the Polynesian community live within Australia. In an article titled ‘What does the 2016 Census reveal about Pacific Islands Communities in Australia?’ by James Batley, which appeared in a publication titled ‘State, Society & Governance and Melanesia’, it states that ‘New South Wales is home to the largest population of people claiming Pacific ancestry, with just over 38 percent of the total, followed closely by Queensland with 34 percent. In NSW, western Sydney (Blacktown) and south-western Sydney see the highest concentrations of people claiming Pacific ancestry; in Queensland, the highest numbers are recorded in the Ipswich– Logan–Gold Coast–Beaudesert area south of Brisbane.’

I am not surprised, as Israel Folau himself was born in Minto, in South Western Sydney and moved to Marsden which is in the Logan area of South East Queensland. Neither of these areas has a rugby side that competes in either the Shute Shield, the premier club rugby competition in New South Wales, or the Hospitals Cup, which is the Queensland equivalent.

How on earth does Rugby Australia expect to attract Polynesian youth to the game of rugby when, firstly, they have no credible presence in areas in which Polynesians mainly reside, then intend on sacking one of Australian greatest Polynesian athletes for a stupid and insensitive social media tweet about his religion, a religion largely shared by the Polynesian community? Mark the words of my friend: “It has defiantly created a negative vibe throughout the Polynesian community as you would expect….but mainly for the PY playing for the Wallabies in the future.”

Recently the New South Wales Waratahs lost a Super Rugby game to the Sharks at the new Bankwest Stadium located in Parramatta, the central business district of Western Sydney. 10,605 people turned up to watch the Folau-less Waratahs lose. Only days prior in an NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the Wests Tigers, the stadium was filled to its 30,000-capacity. Clearly, rugby league is winning the hearts and minds in the west of Sydney.

The crowd at Bankwest Stadium prior to the Waratahs’ clash with the Sharks last weekend. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Interestingly, on September 7, the Wallabies will play Samoa in a test match at Bankwest Stadium. How many of those Polynesians will attend to support Samoa over Australia if Israel Folau is to be sacked? How many of those Polynesian youths who find a path in rugby will opt to play for Samoan, Fijian or Tongan sides and play professionally abroad as opposed to seeking a career with Australian rugby? Could the next Samu Kerevi or Willie Ofahengaue be lost before he is found?

Can Rugby Australia risk such division? I’ve seen Mark Ella, our greatest indigenous player, play, Enrique Rodriguez of Argentina, Ille Tabua of Fiji, Willie Ofahengaue of Tonga, David Pocock of Zimbabwe, George Gregan of Zambia, Clyde Rathbone of South Africa, Quade Cooper of New Zealand and Stephen Moore of Irish parents all do Australia proud. No doubt in the decades of Australian rugby there were homosexuals within the Wallaby playing, coaching and administrative ranks, but it does not appear anyone cared. I am unaware of any homosexual Wallaby ever being excluded from anything.

George Gregan in action for the Wallabies in 2007. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Australian rugby has come so far in diversity in my short life. My first memories of watching the Wallabies play was in the 1978 home series against Wales. That Wallabies side, while completely Caucasian, consisted of an Englishman, a Polish refugee, a farmer who descended from German stock, and Irish Catholic stock alongside British Protestant stock, all in Wallaby gold. Australian rugby overcame the bigotry of the ‘Old World’ together, and we can do it again, together.

Yet, how is it now in 2019, after rugby has in Australia already overcome racism, sectarianism and the likes, have we become embroiled in the Folau saga? Perhaps in its quest for diversity Rugby Australia has forgotten what diversity actually is, as defined in Dictionary.com: “The inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, colour, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation, etc”.

Hypothetically, for Wallabies fans, if Israel Folau were back in Wallaby gold and in the 79th minute of the World Cup final, he breaks off a would-be tackler and scores the winning try, would you care if he were black, white, Hindu, Muslim or Jew? Would you think, ‘hang on, I better not celebrate as his use of social media at times has been controversial’? No way! Your XXXX, Pimm’s or Chardonnay would be spilling everywhere from pure elation that Australia has won. That’s rugby!

If Israel Folau is to be sacked, that is not a win for diversity and threatens the inclusion of the Polynesian community to the game of rugby in this country into the future. This problem does not exculpate or excuse Israel Folau. His guilt or innocence is for others to decide, but the punishment if found guilty is with Rugby Australia.

Rugby Australia is in an unenviable position. The Wallabies are well-represented by the Polynesian community presently, and I only hope so even by greater numbers into the future, yet it appears Rugby Australia requires sponsorship dollars from sponsors who do not approve of Israel Folau’s controversial tweets. Whilst we all sit on the precipice waiting, is too late to sit down and break bread?

In other news:

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Rugby Australia should make peace with Israel Folau