Waratahs prepare for possible life without Folau
Wellington - The Waratahs will have their first taste of life without Israel Folau when they play the Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby on Saturday, not yet knowing whether the separation will be permanent.
Folau has called for a code of conduct hearing after being served by Rugby Australia with formal notice he breached the code with anti-gay social media comments. Rugby Australia said it plans to terminate his contract.
No date has been set for the hearing, but it will likely be held in early May.
While Folau appears in breach of the code of conduct which prohibits Rugby Australia's contracted players from making statements which vilify on the basis of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, he is likely to assert his right to express his religious beliefs.
That is complicated by the fact that Rugby Australia is said to have not specifically included a clause constraining his social media activities in his reported $4 million contract.
But even if Folau wins his legal battle and prevents or delays RA's decision to tear up his contract, his future is uncertain.
Head coach Michael Cheika has said he will no longer pick Folau for the Wallabies because his divisive views do not fit into the team's inclusive culture.
Cheika has been criticised for that decision by former Wallabies who say he is reckless to dismiss from World Cup selection consideration Australia's best player, a 73-Test veteran and three-time Australian player of the year.
But Cheika's view appears to be held also by Folau's team-mates. At a media conference, Wallabies and Waratahs captain Michael Hooper admitted he would be reluctant to play alongside Folau after his latest comments.
Hooper said in rugby it was traditional to accept your team-mates "warts and all" but he found it difficult to ignore Folau's anti-gay views.
Wallabies and Waratahs scrumhalf Nick Phipps praised Rugby Australia and Rugby New South Wales for acting swiftly and in concert on Folau, saying "it gives us the opportunity to just move forward as quickly as possible and let the process run its course rather than let it drag on for ages."
Phipps said the Waratahs would adjust to life without Folau who recently became the leading all-time try-scorer in Super Rugby with his 60th try.
"The talent base of Israel is hard to replace but we have got other people who can bring things that he possibly can't bring in areas," he said. "So it's tough but I am fairly confident we have got the depth in our squad to be able to cover him."
Folau's comments and their fallout have come as an unwelcome distraction for the Waratahs as they prepare for one of the biggest matches of their season so far, a top-of-the-table clash with the Rebels in the Australian conference.
The Rebels have moved seven points clear of the Waratahs atop the conference table.
The Chiefs host the Johannesburg-based Lions to start the weekend round on Friday, when the Durban-based Sharks will also play host to the Reds.
On Saturday, the Sunwolves play the Hurricanes in Tokyo, the Highlanders and Blues play a New Zealand derby in Dunedin and the Stormers take on the Brumbies in Cape Town.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders, who have an 11-point lead in the New Zealand conference, have a weekend bye, as do the Pretoria-based Bulls and Argentina's Jaguares.
The Bulls are in first place in the tight South Africa conference, with the Sharks two points behind. The Jaguares are in third place, four behind the Bulls, with the Stormers and Lions each five points behind the Bulls.