MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia Director of Rugby Scott Johnson has reached out to Pacific islands players amid reports of anger over the treatment of Wallabies fullback Israel Folau.
Folau, a fundamentalist Christian with Tongan heritage, was found guilty of a “high-level” breach of Rugby Australia’s code of conduct last week for posting on social media that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers” and others.
He is expected to have his four-year contract terminated for “disrespecting” people on the basis of their sexuality once a three-member panel considers further submissions before issuing a sanction.
Players with Pacific island heritage who share Folau’s beliefs have expressed support for the fullback, raising fears the saga might open a rift in the Wallabies camp in a World Cup year.
Johnson said he had spoken to a number of them about the Folau case and also reminded that they were paid professionals expected to understand that respect goes “both ways”.
“I’ve spoken to a few of them to make sure, first and foremost, that they’re OK because as I keep saying we’re in a people’s business and you’ve got to get to know people,” Johnson told local broadcaster Fox Sports.
“It’s important and we’re an inclusive game and they’re a big part of our culture and our rugby culture.
“And we don’t want to make it divisive, so it’s about spending time and understanding the issues.
“But what I’ve come across is that we’re respectful both ways, and they’re paid to play rugby and I think they understand that.”
More than a dozen players from the Melbourne Rebels and the Queensland Reds held a prayer huddle on the pitch following their Super Rugby game on Friday after local media reported players intended a “show of solidarity” for Folau.
The huddle included several Pasifika players and Wallabies team mates.
Folau’s trial has stretched far beyond the rugby pitch, triggering a wider debate in Australia about freedom of speech and the power of employers to control their employees away from the workplace.
RA and his Super Rugby team New South Wales Waratahs immediately stood down Folau after the offending post and said they intended to terminate his contract — three weeks before he was given a hearing.
Folau has a right to appeal but the panel’s endorsement of RA’s judgement is sufficient for RA and the Waratahs to dismiss the 73-test back.
The offending post, which has attracted 54,000 ‘likes’ and 48,000 comments, remains on Folau’s Instagram page.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)