SYDNEY (Reuters) – The controversy over Israel Folau’s social media posts and subsequent sacking by Rugby Australia had distracted the New South Wales Waratahs and possibly cost them a Super Rugby playoffs place, according to scrumhalf Nick Phipps.
The Waratahs’ season all but ended on Saturday with a 35-24 loss to the ACT Brumbies and while they have a slim chance to still make the top eight, they must beat the Otago Highlanders next week and hope other results go their way.
Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia last month following a hearing into his social media comments in April that the governing body argued were a breach of the players’ code of conduct.
The 30-year-old, a fundamental Christian, has lodged an appeal to Australia’s Fair Work Commission, an industrial relations tribunal.
While the Waratahs coaching staff said at the time the team had pulled together after the controversy broke, Wallabies halfback Phipps said on Sunday the furore had affected the Sydney-based side.
“We wanted to be making finals at the Waratahs this year and we haven’t really been given that opportunity to make it,” Phipps told Channel Nine TV.
“When you’re on the road doing battle every week, it’s a very tight-knit group and then when one of your own — who you love and respect, every single day train with, work hard with — (does this), it’s very distracting and sad.”
Phipps, who will join London Irish after this year’s Rugby World Cup, added that opinion was divided within the Waratahs over Folau’s post, which said hell awaited “homosexuals” and other groups unless they “repent”.
“He can have those views, that’s fine, everyone’s allowed to have their own opinions,” Phipps said.
“It’s not something that the majority of us share but the way that it came out and the way that it’s happened twice now is disappointing … because the players that haven’t been involved in this are still … on trial.
“There’s no right side to be sitting on, apparently, everyone’s got an opinion about it.
“There are players very close to Izzy who are very Christian as well and that’s tough for them to understand and it’s tough for us as well.”
While the Waratahs’ season might end next Friday in Invercargill, the controversy is expected to rage on for months with both RA and Folau involved in attempts to sway public opinion.
The governing body issued a strongly worded statement late on Saturday defending themselves against accusations by Folau they had acted unprofessionally in their handling of the case.
Folau accusations were contained in a scathing letter sent to RA directors complaining about leaks to the media during the disciplinary hearing and demanding they explain themselves.
That letter too was leaked to the media on Saturday.
“Rugby Australia has acted with complete professionalism and integrity at all times through the process,” RA said in their statement.
“While we will continue to respond to any legal action as required and will continue to defend the values that underpin our game … will not engage in a running media commentary.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)