Ex-teammate warns Folau not to ruin Rugby for everyone else
Former Wallabies star Drew Mitchell believes Rugby Australia (RA) should take its time in handing down its final punishment to Israel Folau because the future of rugby Down Under is riding on the decision.
It's been a month since Israel Folau's homophobic Instagram post dragged rugby and the wider sporting world into a heated debate and everyone's waiting to see what his penalty will be after an independent three-person panel found the fullback guilty of a high-level breach in a code of conduct hearing.
According to a report in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, rugby in Australia could be in turmoil if Folau avoids having his four-year, $4 million contract with RA torn up. The report claims Rugby Australia is privately bracing for a $12 million financial loss for the upcoming season if it is forced to pay out Folau's contract in full - pushing the code to the brink of collapse.
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As the world waits for news on Folau's future, his former Wallabies teammate Mitchell told news.com.au the off-field distraction was frustrating but necessary with plenty riding on the decision.
While many are calling for a quick end to the saga, Mitchell said the enormous consequences of whatever decision is made means there should be no rush to come to a conclusion. He also offered a chilling warning as to what a win for Folau would mean for rugby in this country.
"To be honest, I don't like that we're talking about Israel so much in terms of our game but I'm happy to drag it out for as long as it has to because it's either going to be the end of someone's career or the (end of the) game as we know it because Rugby Australia isn't in the greatest position financially," the Fox Sports rugby analyst said.
"So if they need to take a little bit of extra time to make sure they make the right decision, then I'm alright with that."
Mitchell has been heavily critical of Folau since his social media post on April 10, saying in the days afterwards RA had no choice but to terminate the superstar's contract.
Mitchell also called out Folau's hypocrisy when he progressed to a code of conduct hearing despite writing in a Players Voice column last year he would walk away from his deal if RA told him the situation became untenable.
While Folau's post divided opinion with many high-profile people on both sides of the argument, the potential for his career in green and gold being over is still on the cards since the high-level breach is the only option that could lead to termination.
With the World Cup coming up later in the year, Mitchell acknowledged Folau's absence would leave a huge hole but the move could also have a positive for the Wallabies going forward.
"It's an opportunity for someone to really make a name for themselves and the World Cup is different," Mitchell said. "The pressures are different, the nature of what you're going to is different and some people thrive in that and some people don't.
"Last World Cup in 2015, Kurtley (Beale) was in tremendous form and he was chomping at the bit to get that chance. Were it not for Izzy, Kurtley would have played more minutes but Israel was our starting fullback. There's an opportunity there which is exciting."
Australia is ranked sixth in the world with the World Cup running from September 20 to November 2. There is also plenty of talent vying for backline positions and the competition for spots will only heat up if Folau isn't around.
Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge and Tom Banks could all play fullback, although Mitchell said Beale should have the inside running with his ability to take on a ball-playing role.
This would allow Australia to select ball-running centres with the likes of Samu Kerevi, Tevita Kuridrani and Karmichael Hunt being touted as possible starters in the midfield.
While Rugby Australia would be nervous about sponsors possibly walking away from the game over the Folau issue, Mitchell said the governing body's conviction to stand up for what it believes in will hold it in good stead.
"For any strong Australian brand or organisation, you've got to stand for what you are and with rugby, it's the pillars of integrity and respect and teamwork and the inclusiveness we champion," Mitchell said.
"If we say it and don't act it, that's when you're in a weak position.
"I think it's really admirable for Rugby Australia, with Israel being the player he is, to stand strong on this issue. We've seen it many a time before - not just in rugby but in other codes - where some rules apply for some players and not others because of their impact on the game.
"It may hurt us in the short term because it's a contentious issue which is obvious with the narrative in the public, but in the long run, I think Rugby Australia is going to be in a better position for it because they've stood up and said no."
Mitchell also gives Australia a chance of winning the World Cup, although there is plenty of competition from other teams, including Wales, Ireland, England and of course New Zealand.
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Despite just four wins from 13 games in 2018, Mitchell believes coach Michael Cheika is the right man for the Wallabies top job.
"The thing with Cheik is that he's passionate and like has been mentioned before, he's well off otherwise and he's doing this because he's passionate about it and I think that's a really good position to be in," he said.
"Being involved with Cheik in 2015 and also with the Waratahs before that but more so that World Cup, I've never been in an environment like the one where he was able to rally everyone to believe so much in the common goal.
"I went to bed the night before that All Blacks final genuinely believing I was going to be a world champion the next day. That's why it hurt so much after. That was because of things he did in our preparation and the amount he was able to bring us all together to fight for that common goal.
"It gives me confidence he'll be able to do it again this year."