Talking RL: 'Stop controversial signings like Israel Folau? Good. But who decides what's over the line?'

Israel Folau wasn't asked any hard questions in his first interview as a Catalans player.

Wednesday, 5th February 2020, 2:58 pm
Updated Thursday, 6th February 2020, 10:29 am
Israel Folau has started training with Catalans

It was all about how grateful he is for the opportunity and how fantastic it is to be back in league and how super-excited - his phrase - he is to get started.

There was absolutely nothing about his comments which made him such a controversial signing which, was hardly a surprise; the interview was carried out by the club, not a journalist.

To recap, Folau caused a scandal when - as a Wallabies rugby union star - he posted on Instagram that gay people are destined for hell.

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And not just gay people. "Warning," his Instagram post read. "Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators. Hell awaits you. Repent! Only Jesus saves".

His homophobic nonsense – sourced from the bible or not – was rightly condemned at the time, sparked a debate Down Under about when does freedom of speech become hate speech, and ultimately led to the end of his stellar rugby union career.

The NRL said it would not welcome him back and, though he has since linked bushfires and droughts to Australia’s backing of same-sex marriages, he has now found a new home in Super League. He could make his Catalans debut this weekend.

Super League clubs requested Dragons' chairman, Bernard Guasch, to attend a meeting of top-flighty clubs at Salford today, but he was nowhere to be seen. In his absence, the board voted unanimously to put in place "measures that ensure the Super League has greater authority to stop controversial signings such as this in the future."

Robert Elstone, the competition's chief executive, said the board acknowledged the "legalities around the RFL's decision to register Israel Folau" - prompting today's action.

Indeed, when Folau signed, many felt the RFL should have blocked his signature. My impulse, at the time, was the same. This isn't anti-religion: I know plenty of people practice their faiths without endorsing the opinion that gay people are destined for hell.

It's no surprise Catalans' decision to sign him outraged so many; it was a self-inflicted bloody nose Super League could have done without - especially at a time when it was riding the crest of the Sonny-Bill Toronto wave.

I understand why the board have taken action. But I can't help wonder whether today's decision - undoubtedly well-intentioned - will lead to more problems, more questions, down the line.

The statement mentions 'controversial signings', but what about those already at the clubs? And who's to make the call?

Folau has never been charged with anything. If he was denied the chance to play in Super League, what about convicted criminals?

There are players in Super League or the lower league who have assaulted their partners.

Go further back, and there are plenty more players, plenty more convictions. You can probably name a few.

And don't think the NRL is better because it has an integrity unit. Brisbane prop Matt Lodge was allowed to continue his career despite a sickening attack which started with the hulking prop telling two women it was the “night you will die” and ended with him forcing his way into an apartment, assaulting a man, trying to smash down a door to reach a woman and her son, and being arrested by police pointing guns at him.

Every right-minded person would condemn these actions.

This is not about what can be condoned; it's about what is so serious, it should prevent a player from playing in Super League.

Rugby league prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming. Folau's homophobic social media post contradicted that.

But if that should rule him out of playing the game, what about domestic violence? The game opposes that, too, right?

And I'm guessing those who have been found guilty of racism have contradicted the sport's Kick Racism Into Touch campaign.

Where is the line? Who’s drawing it?

And how much weight do you put on those who are repentant? Because rugby league – rightly, in my view – often gives second chances to people who apologise and are willing to learn through punishment, education and rehab.

Folau, of course, is different. He's not retracted his gibberish; which we can only assume means he still believes what he posted.

And there’s no policing what he thinks; only if, and how, he expresses his homophobic views - something he has promised not to do during his time in Super League.

Huddersfield's players wore rainbow laces against the Dragons last weekend. Wigan swiftly responded to Folau's signing by making their fixture against Catalans Pride Day. I hope others follow suit. I hope when Folau runs out at those games, the message is loud and clear.

In his club interview, the 30-year-old says he is looking forward to "embracing something new and different" in Super League. "The culture is amazing," he said. "I want to embrace the people here."

I hope that's true, though I doubt he'll change his views.