Australia's NRL to veto Folau's league career
UPDATE: Sacked Wallaby star Israel Folau plans a shock return to rugby league, making himself available alongside his brother for Tonga in upcoming Tests against Australia and Britain, the Pacific nation said Monday.
The devoutly Christian fullback, who has Tongan parents, was fired by Rugby Australia in May over a social media post in which he paraphrased a Bible passage, saying “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” would go to hell unless they repented.
“The chairman of the Tongan National Rugby League, Mr George Koloamatangi, today announced that both Israel and John Folau will play for Mate Ma’a Tonga in the Oceania Cup,” the Tonga National Rugby League (TNRL) said on Facebook.
Folau, who was set to play a key role for Australia at the ongoing World Cup in Japan before his fall from grace, said he was excited by a return to the game.
“I don’t want to bring any of my personal matters into this and I am grateful that the RLIF (Rugby League International Federation) have endorsed my availability,” he reportedly said in a TNRL statement.
“What I will do now is focus on playing great rugby league and do my talking on the field.”
Despite his optimism, RLIF deputy chairman Peter Beattie told the Sydney Morning Herald the dual international had not yet been given clearance to play for Tonga.
“As a current member of the RLIF board … I can assure you that this has never been discussed or mentioned around the board table,” he added.
Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) also cast doubt on whether he would pull on a Tongan jersey.
It said in a report on its website that “it is understood there will be a strong push by members of the board of the Rugby League International Federation to veto the move at an upcoming meeting”.
The NRL has previously made clear it was an inclusive sport and Folau would not be allowed to play rugby league in Australia again.
Folau, who grew up in Sydney, began his sporting career in rugby league, making his debut for Melbourne Storm as a teenager in 2007, grabbing the winning try on his debut to telegraph his arrival.
During his meteoric rise, he broke the National Rugby League’s record for most tries in a debut season and won rookie of the year.
Folau played 90 games in the sport with the Storm and Brisbane Broncos between 2007 and 2010, making eight appearances for Australia before switching to Australian Rules and then rugby union with the NSW Waratahs.
He made his Wallabies debut in 2013 against the British and Irish Lions and went on to win 73 caps before being sacked.
His firing proved hugely divisive. While many were outraged by his views, others, including the Christian lobby, defended his right to free speech.
Folau, who made similar offending comments last year, is pursuing court action for unfair dismissal and restraint of trade, with a hearing set for next February. He is seeking up to Aus$10 million (US$6.8 million) in compensation, an apology and the right to play rugby union again.
“These guys (Israel and John) are great footballers and bring size, pace and skill to the team,” Tonga coach Frank Endacott told reporters. “They will make a huge impact in the team and provide exciting attack options all over the park.”
Folau’s brother John also used to play for the NSW Waratahs but quit after his sibling was fired. He previously played league for the Parramatta Eels in Sydney.
Tonga are set to play Britain in Hamilton, New Zealand on October 26 and Australia in Auckland a week later.