Folau signs for Super League club
Former Australian rugby union star Israel Folau, sacked over anti-gay comments, has signed a one-year contract with Catalans Dragons, the Super League club said on Tuesday.
"Catalans Dragons are pleased to announce the signing of Israel Folau with immediate effect," the Perpignan-based club said in a statement.
Dragons chairman Bernard Guasch said: "We want to give Israel a new opportunity to shine on the pitch."
Folau, 30, an ardent Christian and former poster boy of Australian rugby, was fired in May by Rugby Australia over a social media post warning "hell awaits" gay people and others he considers sinners.
At the same time as Catalans announced the arrival of Folau on a one-year deal, the executive chairman of Europe's Super League said in a statement that the majority of "informed voices connected to our game ... share my disappointment that one of our clubs has chosen to sign him.
"There is a strong feeling that the decision to sign him lets down many people connected to our sport," Robert Elstone said.
"I made Catalans Dragons aware of those views. However, Super League does not have the authority to veto the registration of players and is satisfied by the due diligence carried out by The Rugby Football League."
Folau, one of the world's top rugby players, was fired by Rugby Australia over an Instagram post in April in which he condemned "drunks, homosexuals" and warned "hell awaits" them.
Folau appealed against the firing and reached a confidential settlement with the governing body in December. Less than two months later, he is back in rugby - but in the 13-man code in which he first made his name in Australia with the Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos.
The 30-year-old Folau signed a one-season deal with Catalans, the only French club in a league otherwise containing English teams and one from Canada.
"I'm a proud Christian, my beliefs are personal, my intention is not to hurt anyone and I will not be making further public comment about them," Folau said in a statement by Catalans. "I look forward to my return to the great game of rugby league with the Catalans Dragons."
The Super League said it was "a difficult decision" to allow Folau to be registered but added "the moral responsibility for deciding whether to sign a player sits with individual clubs." "The player has not been charged or found guilty of any criminal offence," it said in a statement.
"However distasteful his previous comments, we don't believe that, under our current regulatory framework, these can prevent his participation in the sport.
"We have sought and received reassurances from both the player and the club regarding future behaviour."
Spoke to three Super League clubs today. All were against Israel Folau coming into the competition.— John Davidson (@johnnyddavidson) January 28, 2020
Fair to say the majority of Super League clubs are absolutely not in favour of Israel Folau entering the competition. As in, they are absolutely well and truly against it. Tricky situation for the RFL and Robert Elstone.— Matthew Shaw (@M_Shaw1) January 28, 2020
Catalans confirm signing of Israel Folau on a one-year contract. Folau: “I acknowledge the views expressed by Super League and the RFL. I'm a proud Christian, my beliefs are personal, my intention is not to hurt anyone and I will not be making further public comment about them."— Gareth Walker (@garethwalker) January 28, 2020
Folau responded by saying: "I acknowledge the views expressed by Super League and the Rugby Football League."
Elstone said Catalans has assured Super League that "strict guidelines are in place to prevent the player from repeating his comments."
"They have also assured us," Elstone said, "that his contract will be terminated immediately should he do so."
Catalans chairman Bernard Guasch confirmed that, saying: "Any transgression will trigger an immediate termination of Israel's contract and a substantial fine."
Guasch said his team wanted to give Folau "a new opportunity to shine on the pitch."
"We do not support or agree with Israel's previously expressed and controversial views which are based upon his sincerely held religious belief," Guasch said. "We do not share or condone those views and we are totally committed to our club and our sport being open and welcoming to everyone."
The Super League season starts next month and Wigan Warriors, one of the leading teams, said its game against Catalans on March 22 will be labelled "Pride Day" in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
Keegan Hirst, who plays for Wakefield Trinity and is the first British rugby league player to come out as gay, said on Twitter he was "shocked and disappointed" by Folau's arrival in Super League.
"Our great game is tasked with fighting against homophobia and standing up for the values it puts such high stock in," he tweeted. "It shows none of the bravery, camaraderie or integrity RFL expects from its players, staff and fans."
Folau, who was born in Australia to Tongan parents, had been warned before he was fired after making a similar post containing homophobic references during Australia's national debate over the legalisation of gay marriage.
Folau, who describes himself as a devout Christian, said he was referencing the Bible.
Folau was an undisputed star in his 73 test matches for the Wallabies after joining the rugby union ranks in 2013.
He has the record for most tries by any player in the Super Rugby tournament, and was almost a certainty to play for Australia at the Rugby World Cup in Japan last year until he was fired. Australia lost to England in the quarterfinals.