Former Wallaby Israel Folau picked for Tonga as international exile ends

Israel Folau will return to international rugby with Tonga three years after his Wallabies contract was terminated over a controversial social media post.

The 33-year-old outside back was named in Tonga’s squad on Friday for the Pacific Nations Cup tournament in July and a playoff for next year’s World Cup in France. A change in World Rugby’s rules has allowed Tonga to select Folau alongside three former All Blacks, Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa and Augustine Pulu.

Folau, an evangelical Christian, had his Australia contract torn up in 2019 after he posted a meme on social media which said “hell” awaits homosexuals and other groups.

The dual code international then sued governing body Rugby Australia for unlawful termination seeking A$14 million in damages. The case was settled out of court, with Rugby Australia and Folau issuing a joint statement and apology in late 2019.

A latecomer to rugby union following a successful career in rugby league and a less impressive stint in Australian Rules football, Folau made his Wallabies debut against the British and Irish Lions in 2013, only months after his first Super Rugby match for the New South Wales Waratahs.

He remains fourth on the Wallabies’ all-time try-scoring list with 37, behind David Campese (64), Chris Latham (40) and Adam Ashley-Cooper (39).

His faith-based views and preaching on social media proved divisive, however. Folau drew criticism for expressing his opposition to gay marriage in 2017 after the government called a national plebiscite on legalising same-sex unions in Australia.

A post on social media in 2018 said that homosexuals would go to hell unless “they repent of their sins and turn to God” but he rejected criticism that he was bigoted or homophobic.

Folau’s eventual termination in May 2019 opened a schism in the Wallabies camp, angering team mates who shared his Christian faith and Polynesian heritage.

Rugby Australia’s settlement with Folau cost them a reported A$4 million, contributing to a financial crisis that overwhelmed the governing body when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the following year.

Folau returned to rugby league with a French side in 2020. He tried to revive his career in the sport in Australia but was blocked before switching back to rugby union last year, taking a contract with Japan’s Shining Arcs.

World Rugby’s decision last year to allow players to switch their international allegiance after a three-year stand down paved the way for Folau to represent Tonga, who are coached by former Wallaby Toutai Kefu.

“He’s going to bring a lot of experience to the table,” Kefu told ABC Radio Australia. “His presence is going to be one of the most exciting factors we’re looking forward to.”

Tonga will meet Pacific Nations Cup hosts Fiji, Samoa and an Australia A team at the July 2-16 tournament. A week later, Tonga face the winner of the Asia Rugby Championship in a one-match playoff to decide who will join South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and a team from the Europe 2 zone in Pool B at the World Cup.