Australian rugby player Israel Folau is set to resume his playing career after signing a one-year contract with the French team, Catalans Dragons. The team is part of the Rugby Super League.
One of the first teams he’s likely to face, the UK’s Wigan Warriors, has responded by saying its team will wear rainbow socks and laces for their match.
Folau, 30, who was sacked by Rugby Australia in May 2019 after posting homophobic messages online, is understood to be coming to France in the next few days.
The surprise announcement has upset many LGBTQ players and fans.
Former Welsh captain Gareth Thomas, who is gay and spoke publicly last year about being HIV positive, tweeted: “So Folau has joined the @SuperLeague. Really upset by this as the game, players, and fans were so good to me. All I hope is that as much as Folau wanted his right to speak, then players and fans alike are aloud their right to respond. I will never watch him.”
So Folau has joined the @SuperLeague .Really upset by this as the game, players, and fans were so good to me.All I hope is that as much as Folau wanted his right to speak, then players and fans alike are aloud their right to respond . I will never watch him????
— Gareth Thomas (@gareththomas14) January 29, 2020
Super League chief Robert Elstone criticized the signing but said he did not have the power to stop it, suggesting it was a decision for individual clubs over who they sign: “There is a strong feeling that the decision to sign him lets down many people connected to our sport. I made Catalans Dragons aware of those views.”
If he arrives this week, Folau is expected to sit out Saturday’s opening game of the season against Huddersfield but could make his first appearance for the Dragons against Wakefield Trinity on February, 9.
British player, Keegan Hirst, is a former forward for Wakefield Trinity, and the game’s only current out, gay player.
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Hirst tweeted: “I’m shocked and disappointed at the signing of @IzzyFolau. Our great game is tasked with fighting against homophobia and standing up for the values it puts such high stock in. It shows none of the bravery, cameraderie or integrity @rfl expects from its players, staff and fans.”
I’m shocked and disappointed at the signing of @IzzyFolau. Our great game is tasked with fighting against homophobia and standing up for the values it puts such high stock in. It shows none of the bravery, cameraderie or integrity @rfl expects from its players, staff and fans
— Keegan Hirst (@KeeganHirst) January 28, 2020
The Catalans Dragons are due to play Wigan Warriors in March. The British team greeted the news by making the date of their clash against the French side ‘Pride Day … as the Warriors look [to] support the LGBTQ+ community.”
Learn more ?https://t.co/nvxK1VHHq1
— Wigan Warriors ??? (@WiganWarriorsRL) January 28, 2020
“The game against the Dragons will see the Club’s players wear Rainbow socks … and the players will wear Rainbow Laces for the game with the Club also inviting LGBTQ+ groups, both locally and nationally, to be part of the day,” said a statement on the club’s website.
Explaining their decision to sign the controversial player, Catalans Dragons Chairman Bernard Guash posted a statement saying his club wanted to “give Israel 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. 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.
“We do not believe that those views should be publicly expressed, especially by a high-profile sportsperson. We have a signed agreement with the RFL. Any transgression will trigger an immediate termination of Israel’s contract and a substantial fine for the club.”
Israel Folau issued a brief statement: “I acknowledge the views expressed by Super League and the Rugby Football League. 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 was fired by Rugby Australia in early 2019 after he posted an Instagram image that said ‘hell awaits’ gay people and adulterers.
He was subsequently dropped from the Australian national team and the New South Wales Waratahs but took the matter to an employment tribunal.
Although RA has consistently said it acted correctly in sacking Folau, he was demanding AUS$14million (US$9.5million) in compensation.
The threat of losing the case, and mounting legal costs, could have financially ruined the sporting organization. Instead, in December it reached an out-of-court settlement with Folau to bring the matter to a close.
As part of the settlement, both sides issues apologies for “any hurt or harm caused.” However, Folau’s original Instagram post remains online.