Rugby

Tribunal finds Folau guilty of 'high-level' conduct breach

2019-05-07 10:38
Israel Folau (Getty)
Israel Folau (Getty)

Sydney - Homophobic comments by Israel Folau amounted to a "high-level" breach of rugby's code of conduct, a tribunal ruled Tuesday, leaving the Wallabies star's glittering career hanging in the balance.

The devoutly Christian Folau went to the hearing to challenge Rugby Australia's intention to sack him from his lucrative four-year deal after he posted on social media that "hell awaits" gay people and others he says are sinners.

The governing body declared his actions a "high-level" breach, the only level that allows termination of a contract, and the three-person panel agreed after three days of legal wrangling.

Folau, Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika all gave evidence.

A decision on his punishment has yet to be made, but it could range from the unlikely scenario of allowing him to return to training and playing with the NSW Waratahs, firing him, or issuing fines or suspensions.

"The panel has today provided a judgement that Israel Folau committed a high-level breach of the Professional Players' Code of Conduct with his social media posts on April 10, 2019," Rugby Australia said.

"The panel will now take further written submissions from the parties to consider the matter of sanction."

No timescale was given, but legal experts have warned that whatever happens an appeal is likely, potentially followed by a drawn-out court battle.

Earlier Tuesday, Waratahs chairman Roger Davis called for a "common-sense" settlement, saying it was important to bring the matter to a close and prevent more negative headlines dominating the sport in the weeks and months ahead.

"This is a no-win situation for the game and fans and I'd like to see it resolved as quickly as possible," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"I think a settlement is a common-sense approach... it would be smart. If this goes for a long time there are definitely no winners."

Over the weekend, Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper said an A$1 million offer was made to Folau in a bid to avoid the tribunal, although Rugby Australia has denied the report.

Folau, Super Rugby's record try-scorer, has not played since posting a banner on Instagram that read: "Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators -- Hell awaits you."

Despite his career being at a crossroads, the Herald said Folau had been training alone to stay fit.

Folau escaped without sanction for a similar tirade last year and Rugby Australia has made clear it now wants him out of the game.

His legal team reportedly argued that the governing body did not include a social media clause in the contract, and said his posts were quoting sentiments from the Bible.

The case has proved complex and divisive, pitting Folau's right to free speech against the offence he has caused to others.

Several Pacific Island-origin players have supported him, while others, including within the Wallabies camp, have been critical.

On Tuesday, Australia's first gay rugby club, the Sydney Convicts, joined condemnation of his stance.

"As a proud gay man who's been a rugby supporter my entire life and a kid who idolised the Wallabies, there's a danger those comments could have really severe effects on kids' mental wellbeing," club president Don Rose told broadcaster ABC.

He added: "The entire rugby community wants this to be dealt with and to move on."

A look at five key moments in Israel Folau's life after he was found guilty of a high-level breach of the sport's code of conduct on Tuesday that could result in his sacking:

Teenage prodigy

Folau, who grew up in a rough Sydney neighbourhood, made his National Rugby League entrance as a teenager for Melbourne Storm in 2007, grabbing the winning try on his debut to telegraph his arrival. 

His rise was meteoric with Folau breaking the NRL's record for most tries in a debut season and winning rookie of the year. He also became the youngest league player, at the time, to represent Australia aged just 18 years and 194 days.

Folau played 90 games in the sport with the Storm and Brisbane Broncos between 2007-10, reportedly earning a reputation as a party boy. But he yearned for a return to Sydney and a new challenge.

'What's mine is yours'

Folau switched to Australian Rules in 2011 with the Greater Western Sydney Giants, partly to please his father who was keen for him to give it a crack, but also because it paid more.

He has previously stated that in Polynesian culture - he has Tongan heritage - the three most important things were "family, faith and finances".

A guiding principle was also "what's mine is yours", and playing Aussie Rules allowed him to earn big bucks with which to help his family.

But while Folau worked hard to adapt, he found it difficult and played just 13 games, kicking only two goals. Some viewed his signing as a marketing gimmick and the criticism hurt. He called it day two years into his four-year deal.

Record-breaker

He left AFL richer, and keen for a return to rugby union. The sport was always his first love and he was snapped up by then NSW Waratahs coach Michael Cheika - now Wallabies boss - for his first foray into the 15-a-side game.

The versatile Folau quickly resumed his record-setting exploits, becoming the first player to top the try-scoring charts in both an NRL and Super Rugby season while helping pilot the Waratahs to a drought-breaking maiden premiership in 2014.

He headed the list again in 2016 before this month becoming Super Rugby's all-time leading try-scorer with 60. En route he has been voted Australian rugby player-of-the-year three times.

Folau made his Test debut in 2013 against the British and Irish Lions, becoming one of a select few dual internationals. He went on to play for the Wallabies 73 times and is his country's equal-third-highest try-scorer of all time.

#TeamJesus

While Folau's playing legacy can't be questioned, religion has always been a central part of his life and his views have become more fundamentalist. He grew up as a Mormon, but became an active member of an Assemblies of God fellowship in 2011. 

His social media hashtag is Living for Jesus Christ #TeamJesus and those staunch views first caused trouble in April last year. 

He posted that gay people were destined for hell and again courted controversy by tweeting a link to a video opposing same-sex marriage by late American evangelist David Wilkerson.

The backlash was fierce, with ex-Wallaby Clyde Rathbone saying "Australia's best rugby player is a religious lunatic bent on self-immolation".

Folau was reprimanded by his employer, Rugby Australia, but escaped any sanction. Considered Australia's most marketable player, the governing body was treading a delicate line between freedom of speech and its policy of inclusiveness.

Fall from grace

While Folau vowed never to back away from his religious beliefs, he appeared to have heeded Rugby Australia's warning to keep his anti-gay views to himself before spectacularly re-igniting the controversy just months after signing a lucrative new multi-season contract.

He posted an Instagram banner in April that read: "Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators -- Hell awaits you."

With key Wallabies sponsor Qantas livid and criticism rapidly building, Rugby Australia sensationally informed one of the nation's greatest-ever sportsman that it planned to sack him. 

Rugby league also turned its back, leaving the 30-year-old's storied rags-to-riches career in tatters.

He took the matter to a tribunal, which on Tuesday agreed that his actions were a "high-level" breach of the sport's code of conduct, with his punishment to be handed down after final deliberations.

Read more on:    rugby australia  |  israel folau  |  rugby

 

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