The ex-Wallaby has signed a one-year deal to return to rugby league, having been banished from rugby union for expressing homophobic and hateful views towards a number of backgrounds including the LGBTQ+ community, and an agreement within his contract stipulates that any repeat of his previous actions will result in an immediate termination of the deal and a sizeable fine for the club.
The Perpignan-based club issued a statement on Tuesday to confirm the signing just two days before the start of the new 2020 Super League season, and Folau also commented to confirm that he will no longer express his personal religious views in public.
“I acknowledge the views expressed by Super League and the Rugby Football League,” Folau said in a statement.
“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. I look forward to my return to the great game of Rugby League with the Catalans Dragons.”
Folau was sacked from his contract with Rugby Australia last year after posting an image on his Instagram profile that “hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators”, which came in a series of comments made towards homosexual and transgender people.
More recently, Folau blamed the recent devastating bushfires in Australia on gay marriage and abortion during a sermon last November at The Truth of Jesus Christ Church in Sydney.
“They’ve legalised same-sex marriage,” Folau said. “Going against the laws that God says.
“Abortion – it’s OK now to murder and kill infants, unborn children – and they deem that to be OK. Look how rapid these bushfires, these droughts, all these things they’ve come in a short period of time – you think it’s a coincidence?”
In December, Folau and Rugby Australia released a joint-statement to confirm that an out-of-court settlement had been reached to end his lengthy legal claim of unlawful dismissal, with the 30-year-old understood to have received around A$8m (£4.1m).
The signing has been ratified by the Rugby Football League in what they described as a “difficult decision”, with Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone admitting that a number of influential voices within the game “share my disappointment that one of our clubs has chosen to sign him”.
“Super League deplores the homophobic comments Israel Folau has made in the past, which squarely contradict our sport’s core values,” Elstone said in a statement.
“I have sought the opinion of informed voices connected to our game, and the majority 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. 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. Israel Folau is a free agent, who has the right to work, and he has not been charged or found guilty of any criminal offence.
“Catalans Dragons has assured Super League that strict guidelines are in place to prevent the player from repeating his comments. They have also assured us that his contract will be terminated immediately should he do so.”
The RFL added: “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 behaviour.
“The RFL has taken and will continue to take action where any player breaches expected standards of behaviour while registered with a club, and comments that conflict with our commitment to Inclusion and Diversity across the game will not be tolerated.”
The RFL’s players’ code of conduct states that players should “never engage in discriminatory or unacceptable conduct of any sort including swearing, obscene gestures, offensive remarks, taunting or other actions that are demeaning or disrespectful to other players, officials or supporters”, and to “treat others as you would like to be treated”.
Catalans Dragons chairman Bernard Guasch defended the decision, which is not the first time that they have faced such a controversy after signing disgraced Australian player Greg Bird in 2009 following his conviction for assaulting his girlfriend.
“We want to give Israel a new opportunity to shine on the pitch,” said Guasch. “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 sports person.
“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.”
The move to sign Folau has not gone down well with other Super League clubs, and it was no surprise to see Wigan Warriors announce their intention to dedicate their 22 March encounter against Catalans as their designated ‘Pride Day’ to “support the LGBTQ+ community”.
“Here at Wigan Warriors we are committed to the core values of inclusion and respect,” said executive director and club legend Kris Radlinski.
“Our community foundation have a long history of supporting local LGBTQ+ groups and initiatives, and we want everyone who engages with our game to feel welcome, valued and most of all, respected. Rugby League has a strong history of inclusion, of breaking down barriers and of being a forward-thinking sport. I think that today more than any day that it is vitally important we reiterate that message. We’re looking forward to working with charities, local and hopefully national groups, to make this day a success.”
The signing was also condemned by openly gay Super League player Keegan Hirst, with the Halifax prop adding: “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.”