Super League launch feel-good factor undone by Israel Folau signing - Peter Smith

THERE WAS a rare feel-good factor in the room when Betfred Super League 2020 was launched at Emerald Headingley five days ago.

Wednesday, 29th January 2020, 4:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th January 2020, 5:02 pm
Israel Folau.

It has been by no means an easy off-season and the plight of both Rob Burrow and Mose Masoe brought the whole nature of the sport into question.

On the flip side, appeals launched to help the two men – Burrow through his motor neurone disease diagnosis and Masoe after suffering a career-ending spinal injury – have highlighted just what a special sport this is.

Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s testimonial game, which was also a benefit for Burrow, should have been a sad occasion, but the full house at Emerald Headingley and wave of love and goodwill for the former Leeds Rhinos man made it an unforgettable and uplifting afternoon.

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Rob Burrow and family together with Jamie Jones-Buchanan at the recent testimonial.

It is fair to say some faith in the sport was restored. On top of that, the star names at last week’s launch – including Sonny Bill Williams, James Maloney and George Burgess – reinforced the impression Super League XXV, which begins tomorrow, could be an exceptional season.

And then, two days before the big kick-off, Catalans Dragons signed Israel Folau. Supposedly, there’s no such thing as bad publicity and Folau’s return to the 13-a-side game has created as many headlines as Williams’ did late last year, but they are damaging ones. As Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone has said, Catalans have let down their sport.

Folau began his career in league with Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos before moving to Australian Rules in 2011 and rugby union two years later. In the 15-a-side game, he is Australia’s fourth-highest Test try scorer and the most prolific in Super Rugby history.

There’s no doubting his ability and normally signing a player of Folau’s talent – particularly bringing him back from union – would be a huge coup for rugby league. In fact, two of union’s biggest recent names will be playing Super League this year.

Mose Masoe.

However, for all his on-field achievements, Folau has arguably become better known for his offensive personal views and he was sacked by Rugby Australia last year following remarks made on personal media about same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

Rugby union doesn’t want him, the NRL feels the same. Is rugby league really that desperate?

In a Super League statement, Elstone claimed Folau’s homophobic comments “squarely contradict our sport’s core values” and surely most fans would agree.

Perhaps owing to its rebel nature, league has always been inclusive and there was an outpouring of support for Keegan Hirst, the then Batley Bulldogs player, when he came out as gay five years ago.

A “disappointed” Hirst says the signing “shows none of the bravery, camaraderie or integrity the Rugby Football League (RFL) expects from its players, staff and fans”. He’s right to be upset.

One of the sport’s most high-profile players is somebody who believes Hirst is destined for hell simply because of his sexuality – a matter which is really no business of anyone other than Hirst and his loved ones.

Like Super League, the RFL “deplores the player’s previous comments”, but insists “we don’t believe that, under our current regulatory framework, these can prevent his participation in the sport”.

Indeed, should an individual be denied the opportunity to earn a living because of sincerely held beliefs? Folau has not been convicted of a criminal offence. Others, who will be playing this weekend, have been, have done their time and continue in the game.

Individuals deserve an opportunity to turn their life around; rugby league can be a part of their rehabilitation, but Folau isn’t going to change his views. Free speech offers protection from prosecution, but doesn’t mean there are no consequences. Though Folau has pledged to keep his thoughts to himself following his return to league – and Catalans say they’ll sack him if he doesn’t – damage has already been done.

Folau’s beliefs have no place in not just sport, but society.

He’s a good player, but rugby league doesn’t want or need him. Catalans have done themselves and the code no favours by – unnecessarily – taking him on.