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Folau moves to Europe, faces backlash over anti-gay views

January 28, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 file photo, Australian fullback Israel Folau holds a tackle bag during a training session in Christchurch, New Zealand. Folau is facing a backlash over his previous social-media posts that contained homophobic views after switching codes to join French rugby league side Catalans Dragons in Europe's Super League. The move signals Folau's return to top-level sport after he was fired by Rugby Australia for saying he condemned "drunks, homosexuals" and warned "hell awaits" them. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, file)
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 file photo, Australian fullback Israel Folau holds a tackle bag during a training session in Christchurch, New Zealand. Folau is facing a backlash over his previous social-media posts that contained homophobic views after switching codes to join French rugby league side Catalans Dragons in Europe's Super League. The move signals Folau's return to top-level sport after he was fired by Rugby Australia for saying he condemned "drunks, homosexuals" and warned "hell awaits" them. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, file)

Israel Folau, the rugby star who was fired by Australia for social media posts that contained anti-gay views, was facing a widespread backlash on Tuesday after securing a move to French rugby league team Catalans Dragons.

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.

He caused further outrage in November when, in a 10-minute video sermon, he linked the bushfires that have devastated Australia as God’s punishment for legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion.

Now 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. The 2020 season starts on Thursday, with Catalans’ first game coming on Saturday at its Perpignan base against Huddersfield.

“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 behavior.”

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.”

Wigan Warriors, one of the leading teams, said its game against Catalans on March 22 will be labeled “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 legalization 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.

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80