Gerry Thornley: Israel Folau left Rugby Australia with very little option
Player openly espousing values inimical to those of the Wallabies and rugby in general
The ever-escalating furore regarding the inflammatory and incendiary comments by Israel Folau, and supported by Billy Vunipola, provide the clearest evidence yet as to the potentially damaging consequences of players ill-advisedly using social media.
And the problem for rugby, like all sports, is that it has no control over its use by individual players.
The fall-out from Folau’s proclamation that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” (a diverse group we never thought we’d be listing in a Tuesday rugby column) is a problem not of rugby’s making.
But the net effect has been to land the sport, and especially the Australian and English rugby unions, with a crisis.
Rugby likes to pride itself on being an inclusive sport and, as befits a relatively young country drawing on so many ethnic influences, no team embodies this more than the Wallabies under Michael Cheika. Players of hugely diverse backgrounds are encouraged to tell of their back stories to the rest of the squad and to be welcomed into the fold. The Wallabies pride themselves in seeking to represent all Australians. Folau doesn’t.
Thus far the New South Wales Waratahs and Rugby Australia are to be commended for their swift response, which now seems sure to signal the end of his rugby union career.
Cheika, along with the Wallabies and Waratahs captain Michael Hooper, and the Waratahs coach, Daryl Gibson, all spoke to the media in Sydney yesterday, and all accepted that Folau was entirely entitled to his views.
But Cheika said Folau’s “disrespectful” comments would currently make it impossible to pick the player for this year’s World Cup, while Hooper said “it makes it difficult” to imagine playing alongside him. And they will be a lesser team without his brilliance.
Compare and contrast Folau’s views with those of David Pocock, who has campaigned for the legalisation of gay marriage, something that only came to Australian in 2017.
Folau’s profile transcends Australian rugby union, for he has also been a star of Aussie Rules and Rugby League. He would have been idolised by so many young people in Australia, but if any of them were of a mind to admit they were gay or confused about their sexuality in any way, Folau’s expressed beliefs could only have left them feeling even more vulnerable. That is the kernel of the issue here. Folau’s views generate exclusivity, rather than inclusivity, and with it even hate.
In not adhering to the inclusive beliefs of the Wallabies, so Rugby Australia in turn are entitled to sever Folau’s contract, having previously warned him against sharing material that “condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality”.
This whole debate is, of course, multilayered. Noting the support of Vunipola and others of Pacific Island heritage, in some respects it is also a case of empirical chickens coming home to roost (as they so often do).
As Stuart Barnes wrote in the Sunday Times, the Pacific Islands are from another culture, where religious beliefs were heavily influenced by being part of the European empire.
“Places where bullet and Bible worked in colonial interest,” wrote Barnes. “Missionaries taught the islanders to believe in our Christian God of empire. We moved on. The empire came to an end but in those Pacific Islands, God is a very real entity and belief absolute”
This writer will never forget landing in the Samoan capital, Apia, for the very first time, and making the journey through the island late on a Saturday night from airport to hotel past countless religious congregations in open air places of worship.
Folau’s mother, Amelia, and his strict and reportedly very influential father Eni, grew up in relative poverty in Tonga. The Folaus were devout Mormons before switching, at Erni’s behest, to Assemblies of God in 2011. Folau has described God as his GPS, and believed that God broke his ankle during an NRL game against the NZ Warriors in 2009 to teach him a lesson.
“I was getting a big head, going out, drinking and hooking up with girls. I had to be humbled.”
It’s also always a tricky one to draw a line between freedom of speech and then sanctioning someone for expressing their beliefs.
Folau, Vunipola and others are entitled to their beliefs as well, however misguided and lacking in Christian forgiveness they may seem to many of us. And to ‘like’ Folau’s social media messages is not necessarily to support them.
Yet no less than Folau, Vunipola (by all accounts a likeable and engaging person) must have known the consequences of his own comments, and particularly when ascertaining: “Man was made for woman to pro create [sic] that was the goal no?” This echoes Folau’s homophobia.
While the sound of condemnation from within the game was altogether louder, many players, mostly teammates at Saracens and/or England, and many of Pacific Island backgrounds, in turn ‘liked’ Vunipola’s tweets, amongst them Manu Tuilagi, Nathan Hughes, Nick Isiekwe, Courtney Lawes, and Taulupe Faletau.
All members of England’s elite player squad are required to adhere to a code of conduct in accordance with the RFU’s values and Vunipola should be charged with conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game under the union’s Rule 5.12.
Educating Vunipola and others to have a more enlightened interpretation of their Christian beliefs, and also realise the damaging effect such comments can have, would be the best solution.
The Guardian reported Vunipola will not be disciplined but at the very least the RFU should sanction him as Folau was a year ago, with a warning that a repeat will lead to his contract also being severed.
Folau, and those who influence him, appear not to have cared that his judgemental, condemnatory comments might have caused people so much anguish. Sure, he’s entitled to his beliefs and his opinions, but rugby is also entitled not to have any truck with them.