Side Entry: Folau fallout puts rugby on the spot

Simnikiwe Xabanisa
Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Last week, Australian fullback Israel Folau gate-crashed his way into the discussion over rugby’s all-time greats by overtaking Doug Howlett’s 59 Super Rugby tries in the Waratahs’ defeat to the Blues, to become the top try scorer in the competition’s history.

Folau – whose balanced running and beautiful handling are only surpassed by his peerlessness under the high ball – scored his 60 tries in 96 games for the Waratahs, while Howlett took 104 matches and three teams to reach the milestone.

Instead of celebrating entering his name into the Super Rugby “greatest of all time” conversations, the devout Christian acted like an actual goat when he jumped back on to his soapbox and told pretty much all of us that we’re going to hell due to a list of prescribed sins on his Instagram page.

That one “sin” that caught his employers Rugby Australia and the Waratahs’ eye was homosexuality, largely because Folau had put his career in jeopardy by making the same utterances last year.

While the free speech police among us may point out that Folau’s comments were made on his social media platform and are clearly his private beliefs, Rugby Australia and the Waratahs have taken a dim view of his freedom to express himself, as his contract with them precludes him from discriminating against others on the basis of their sexual orientation.

As things stand, Rugby Australia and the Waratahs – who only recently extended the former rugby league player’s stay in Rugby Union to 2022 – have resolved to terminate the unrepentant 30-year-old’s contract, pending his decision to belatedly fight for his career after not answering their calls for more than a day following his latest outrageous comments.

Folau’s case is hardly going to be helped by the fact that Alan Joyce, the chief executive of Qantas – Rugby Australia’s main sponsor – is openly gay and was heavily credited with campaigning for same sex marriage to be legalised in Australia last year.

Be that as it may, Australian rugby, and the game itself, will soon be backed into a corner over what happens to Folau. Rugby League, that last refuge of players with questionable morals, has already said there is no place for a bigot like Folau in its teams.

Sacking Folau will put Wallaby coach Michael Cheika in a bind as it will leave him without his best player in a World Cup year. While one can’t see him go against his employers, it’ll be interesting to see if he tries to convince them otherwise as he has a tournament to win.

The expediency of recognising Folau’s blockbuster status in the game, not to mention his ability to win matches single-handedly – above the fact that his views belong in the 19th century – will be rugby’s big test from this fallout.

The thing is, while rugby has two of the more prominent gay people in sport in Welshmen Gareth Thomas and referee Nigel Owens, it is probably one of the sports that reinforce outdated views on gay people.

Rugby is renowned for being a sport that is all about the camaraderie, but its overdeveloped sense of masculinity – where kids still get told to “go play netball” when they don’t meet the physicality standard and women still don’t get taken seriously as players – means it still finds itself at the forefront of bigotry (we haven’t even mentioned racism).

Thanks to Folau, the game now finds itself in a tight spot as whoever takes a punt on the unrepentant Aussie fullback will inadvertently be endorsing the hate speech he tends to come with despite coming across as such a nice guy.

Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa

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