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Shock as Catalan Dragons sign player Israel Folau who said 'hell awaits' gay people

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Israel Folau was fired by Australia over homophobic comments he posted to social media
Israel Folau was fired by Australia over homophobic comments he posted to social media   -   Copyright  Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved   -   Rick Rycroft
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High-profile figures in rugby league have expressed widespread disappointment over a European club's decision to sign disgraced Australian star Israel Folau.

The Catalan Dragons said on Tuesday it had recruited the controversial 30-year-old on a year-long contract.

Folau — who was one of Australia's highest-paid rugby union players — was sacked by the Wallabies just nine months ago over a homophobic social media post.

The devout Christian had written in May that "hell awaits" gay people and defended the post as a right to religious expression.

In a sermon he gave later in November, the full-back suggested Australia's bushfires were a "little taste of God's judgement" over the country's same-sex marriage and abortion laws.

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'Shocked and disappointed'

Reaction across the sporting world was one of surprise at the Dragons' announcement.

The Rugby Football League (RFL) said it had made the "difficult decision" not to prevent Folau from signing over his "distasteful" comments as he had not been charged or found guilty of a criminal offence.

It added: "The moral responsibility for deciding whether to sign a player sits with individual clubs."

Meanwhile, Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone said there was a "strong feeling" the decision "lets down many people connected to our sport".

"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," he said.

British rugby league star Keegan Hirst — who is openly gay — said on Twitter he was "shocked and disappointed" by the signing, and that he rejected the player's defence.

He wrote: "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, camaraderie or integrity @rfl expects from its players, staff and fans.

"Just FYI, this has nothing to do with beliefs. It has everything to do with homophobia.

"There are millions of people practising their religion who are not homophobic.

"Prejudice is prejudice and using religion, political beliefs or anything else to justify it is not ok."

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Folau has said he will make 'no further public comment' about his viewsCopyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reservedRick Rycroft

'Pride Day'

In March, the Catalan Dragons are scheduled to face the Wigan Warriors - who have released their own response to the signing.

Just minutes after the team made their announcement, the British club said it would be designating the match day as "Pride Day" in support of LGBTQ+ communities.

Players will be wearing rainbow-stripes socks and laces for the match, a statement on the team's website said.

Similarly, the official Twitter account for the Rugby League World Cup posted a photo of its trophies adorned with rainbow-striped tassels.

'We want to give Israel a new opportunity'

Ahead of the backlash, Folau's new team said it did not "support or condone" the player's previous comments but added that it wanted to give him "a new opportunity to shine on the pitch".

It said he had also been warned about making similar comments in the future, which would "trigger an immediate termination" and a fine for the team.

Folau himself said he "recognised" the opinions from the RFL and Super League and continued to defend them as "personal".

He said: "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."