Five key stages that shaped Israel Folau
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Rugby Australia and Israel Folau reached a settlement Wednesday to end the former Wallaby’s multi-million dollar lawsuit over his sacking for controversial comments made on social media in April this year.
The star fullback enjoyed one of the world’s great sporting journeys, spanning Aussie Rules, Rugby League and Rugby Union, before his spectacular fall from grace.
We look at five key stages in Folau’s colourful and controversial career.
2007: Teenage prodigy
Folau, who grew up in a rough Sydney neighbourhood, makes his National Rugby League entrance as a 17-year-old for Melbourne Storm and is immediately in the headlines after grabbing the winning try on debut.
Folau breaks NRL record for most tries in a debut season and wins rookie of the year. He becomes the youngest player to represent Australia aged just 18 years and 194 days.
Folau plays 90 games with the Storm and Brisbane Broncos between 2007-10, reportedly earning a reputation as a party boy. But he yearns for a return to Sydney.
2011: Money rules
Folau switches to Australian Rules with the Greater Western Sydney Giants, partly to please his father who was keen for him to give it a crack, but also because it pays more.
He had previously stated that in Polynesian culture – he has Tongan heritage – the three most important things were “family, faith and finances” and playing Aussie Rules allows him to earn big bucks to help his family.
Folau works hard to adapt but plays just 13 games, kicking only two goals. Some view his signing as a marketing gimmick, and the criticism hurts. He calls it day two years into his four-year deal.
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2013: Super Rugby star
He leaves AFL richer and, keen to try Rugby Union, is snapped up by Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, who will go on to coach the Wallabies.
The versatile Folau quickly adjusts to the XV-a-side game and becomes the first player to top try-scoring charts in an NRL and Super Rugby season.
He helps the Waratahs to their only Super Rugby championship in 2014 and leads the scoring list again in 2016 and in April 2019 becomes the competition’s all-time leading try-scorer with 60.
Folau makes his Test debut in 2013 against the British and Irish Lions, becoming one of a select few dual-code internationals, and goes on to play 73 times for the Wallabies.
2011: Signs for #TeamJesus
Folau grows up as a Mormon, but becomes an active member of an Assemblies of God fellowship in 2011.
His Twitter profile describes him as “Living for Jesus Christ #TeamJesus” and his increasingly fundamentalist views first cause trouble in April 2018 when he posts that gay people were destined for hell and tweets a link to a video opposing same-sex marriage.
The backlash is fierce, with former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone saying “Australia’s best rugby player is a religious lunatic bent on self-immolation” and he is reprimanded by his employers, Rugby Australia, who have a policy of inclusiveness.
2019: Fall from grace
Folau appears to have heeded Rugby Australia’s warning to keep his controversial views to himself until spectacularly reigniting the controversy just months after signing a lucrative new multi-season contract.
In April this year he posts an Instagram banner saying: “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.”
With key Wallabies sponsor Qantas livid and criticism building, Rugby Australia sensationally sack him for breach of contract.
The dispute is heading for the courts in February and a multi-million lawsuit until on Wednesday Rugby Australia and Israel Folau reach a settlement, the terms of which are not disclosed.