Israel Folau has declined to address questions about his future despite Rugby Australia saying he would be sacked if he could not offer a good reason for a social media post that said gay people would go to “hell” if they did not “repent”.
The 30-year-old fullback, a fundamentalist Christian, escaped sanction when he posted similar comments last year but RA took a much harder line when, having repeatedly warned him against it, the offence was repeated on Wednesday.
The multi-million dollar contract Folau signed in February looks certain to be torn up unless he can convince RA and the New South Wales Waratahs that there are “compelling mitigating factors” for sharing the post.
RA and the Waratahs said they had made repeated attempts since Wednesday to contact Folau, who has not posted anything further on social media, nor deleted the offending meme, since the furore broke.
Folau maintained a stony silence after holding crisis talks amid RA’s threat to tear up his multi-million-dollar contract. Supported by his professional netballer wife Maria, the three-time John Eales Medallist spent Friday morning at a Sydney cafe with Rugby Union Players’ Association boss Prataal Raj and another RUPA representative.
He declined to answer when approached by a TV reporter, but it is understood he told Raj he wanted to observe his right to challenge RA’s planned sacking at a code of conduct hearing.
The fallout, however, continued with numerous media columnists opining on what the decision meant for the country and Australian politicians wading in. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, who is a Pentecostal Christian like Folau and stood up for the player after his posts a year ago, said it was a decision for RA to make.
“Israel’s comments were insensitive and it’s important that when you’re in public life, you’re just very mindful of being sensitive to other Australians and that you speak with that empathy,” he said.
The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said rugby authorities have acted appropriately. “There is no freedom to perpetuate hateful speech,” he said. “Some of the comments which have been seen are far closer to hateful than I think appropriate for what people should be doing on social media.”
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Adern, voiced her concern that Folau’s status allowed him a platform to spread his views. “He’s a person in a position of influence and I think that with that comes responsibility,” Ardern said. “I’m particularly mindful of young people who are members of our rainbow community, there is a lot of vulnerability there.”
Former Wallabies coach turned radio host, Alan Jones, said the decision endangered free speech in Australia and had been driven by RA’s concern not to upset sponsors. “It has nothing to do with Israel, or rugby, or religion, homosexuals, or whatever. Where are we in this country on free speech?” he said. “We’ve got an issue here because we’re going down a very, very narrow road here.”
There was also concern over the issue of free speech from the former deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, who said he did not agree with the player’s opinions but was “distinctly uncomfortable with this pile on”.
“He is a rugby player with a well known very Christian conservative worldview,” Joyce said. “They employed him and they knew that how can they sack him?”
Beyond his fierce commitment to his faith, it remains a mystery as to what had motivated Folau to continue his social media outbursts after being warned last year by Castle to express his views in a “respectful” manner.
It would seem incomprehensible that the code-hopping ace would risk his career – and the opportunity to win a World Cup this year with the Wallabies – if he did not have another playing option.
Folau’s chances of switching back to rugby league in the NRL were dashed late on Thursday with the governing body the Australian Rugby League Commission ruling out any return to the sport.
“Israel Folau doesn’t pass our inclusiveness culture, which is a policy strongly supported by the ARLC,” its chairman Peter Beattie told Fairfax. “And after talking to some commissioners tonight, we don’t support him playing rugby league again.“
His best chances therefore lie offshore, although the chances of joining French club Toulon appear to be non-existent with their outspoken owner Mourad Boudjellal criticising him in an interview in French newspaper L’Equipe.