Tonga coach opens door for Folau's return
SPOTLIGHT: Tonga coach Toutai Kefu has revealed controversial former Wallabies star Israel Folau has expressed interest in returning to Rugby Union to play for the Pacific Island nation. Alex McLeod reports.
Folau hasn’t played union since he was sacked by Rugby Australia [RA] in 2019 for posting a meme on social media that said hell awaited “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers” and other groups.
Following legal proceedings that resulted in a confidential settlement between Folau and RA, the triple-code star moved back to Rugby League by signing a one-season deal to play for the Catalan Dragons in the Super League.
Now back in Brisbane, Folau is currently a free agent across both union and league, and has been the subject of speculation about possibly turning out for Tonga at this year’s Rugby League World Cup in the United Kingdom.
However, the prospect of the 32-year-old returning for a second stint in union is still alive as Kefu told RNZ Folau has been in contact about playing for the ‘Ikale Tahi (Tonga).
“He’s Tongan, he’s a bloody good player – we’re more than happy to have him and accommodate him… We’d have no concerns,” Kefu said about the prospect of the 73-Test Australian international playing Test rugby for Tonga.
“We all grew up the same way. We all went to Sunday School and then there’s different divisions of religion that we all grew up in. We certainly all support Israel and his views.”
The switch in allegiance wouldn’t come without its complications, though, given the unlikelihood that Folau would be able to land a professional contract in Australia.
Whether any clubs or franchises outside of Australia would be willing to take the utility back – who can cover fullback, wing and centre – onboard remains to be seen, but what is certain is that any nationality change wouldn’t happen immediately.
Folau last played for the Wallabies in November 2018 and needs to complete a three-year international stand-down period before being eligible to play for another country that he holds a passport for.
That stand-down period won’t be completed until November this year, four months after the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament in Monaco.
The tournament, scheduled for the weekend of July 19-20, acts as the final opportunity for players to switch international allegiance until the next Olympic cycle.
After that, the next window for Folau to crossover from Australia to Tonga would be at the 2023 Oceania Sevens Championship, at which point he would be 34 and would have missed the 2023 World Cup in France.
Former All Blacks utility back Charles Piutau is facing a similar predicament as he continues to work towards switching his allegiance from New Zealand to Tonga.
While the 17-Test international hasn’t played a Test match in six years, his commitments to his club side, Bristol Bears, could prevent him from taking to the field for the Tongan Sevens side in Monaco.
Bristol are currently 12 points clear at the top of the Premiership standings and are highly likely to be involved in the competition’s semifinals, which are scheduled for the same weekend as the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament.
Tonga Rugby Union chief executive Peter Harding last week expressed doubt over Piutau’s availability for the tournament, but Kefu remains optimistic about coming to a resolution with Bristol.
“It’s unfortunate about Charles. We still haven’t got the exact date of the tournament and there may be an option of maybe flying Charles in just for the day or day and a half to maybe just qualify him and get him on the field,” Kefu said.
“I know he’s got finals time around that time so we still haven’t ruled him out.”
Kefu added Kiwi star George Moala, who played four Tests for the All Blacks between 2015 and 2016, is another player he is keen on, but as his club, Clermont, is expected to qualify for the Top 14 play-offs, there is uncertainty about his availability as well.
“There’s George Moala as well who’s at Clermont and they look like they’ll be in the midst of finals as well around that Monaco tournament.”
However, early indications of All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa taking to the field for Tonga in Monaco are promising given his side, Wasps, are languishing in ninth place and aren’t expected to make the Premiership’s top four.
That would make the 28-year-old, who played the last of his 24 Tests for New Zealand in 2017, free to play Sevens for his nation of birth in July.
“Malakai is probably the only high-profile player that we know that looks like going to the tournament – we’re still in constant discussions with him,” Kefu said.
Tonga will compete against the likes of France, Ireland, Samoa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Chile, Hong Kong, China, Mexico, Jamaica and Uganda at the tournament in Monaco for the final place at this year’s Tokyo Olympics.
The men’s Olympic Sevens tournament is scheduled to take place between July 26-28 and will be held at Tokyo Stadium, the venue that staged eight matches – including the opening match and three play-off matches – at the 2019 World Cup.
By Alex McLeod, @RugbyPass