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For all the heat, criticism and abuse hurled Israel Folau’s way, what will become of him when he actually returns from the hamstring injury that’s currently keeping him out of the game?
Already, prominent opposing players have fired back through the same publicly available social channels. New Zealand scrumhalves Brad Weber and TJ Perenara have chosen their words carefully and pointedly, and made a significant impact.
It was notable, too, that Folau’s former Wallabies teammate, scrumhalf Nic White, heartily endorsed Weber’s Twitter comment from England.
And this is where it gets really interesting.
He would have to know that teammates he has to share a change room with – from both the Wallabies, and especially from the Waratahs right now – are really disappointed with what he’s said.
Like plenty of people, they would respect his right to an opinion, but it’s likely that at least some of them feel exactly the same way as Weber and Perenara.
Equally, teammates could be just as devout, but vehemently disagree not only with what Folau said, but also the interpretations of the Christian scriptures that motivated his comments.
Waratahs teammates Curtis Rona and Michael Hooper have indeed defended his right to free speech, as has Brumbies prop and Wallabies teammate Allan Ala’alatoa. None of them said they agreed with his opinion, however.
Folau said in his Players Voice column last week, “I don’t expect everyone to believe what I believe. That goes for teammates, friends and even family members, some of whom are gay.”
But after the criticism he received after speaking out against legalising same-sex marriage last year, he would have to be aware the impact his words on this topic can have.
A penny for David Pocock’s thoughts right now? Is Folau ready for that awkward conversation?
How is a Waratahs teammate battling with their sexuality supposed to feel at the moment? It’s one thing to have a teammate tell you’re not packing correctly into scrums, or that the timing of your pass isn’t good enough, but how do react to being told you’re going to Hell?
But once he gets back to playing, there is going to be a whole new level of scrutiny on him.
Opposing players and teams will quite likely target him. It’s likely Folau’s words will be thrown back at him. It would be questionable that Folau would be sledged about his religious beliefs – given Jacques Potgieter’s fine and suspension a few seasons back for making homophobic comments – but you couldn’t rule it out at all. Is he ready for that?
Is he ready for his performance to scrutinised and criticised like never before?
I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Folau doesn’t need to do much in a game to generate headlines and highlights and praise that belie his overall performance – the June series in Australia last year is a good example – and for the time being, I’ll be genuinely interested to see if he enjoys that same level of ‘benefit of the doubt’ coverage.
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He has a spectacular highlights reel over his career; that’s not in question. He is undeniably the most recognised player in Australia.
Is he the most important player for the Wallabies or the Waratahs? I’m not so sure.
Already, the Tahs look a better team, with more attacking threats and a better and more balanced shape to their attack since Daryl Gibson moved Folau to the right wing and began playing Bryce Hegarty at fullback.
So, I’ll be really interested to see how Folau does return to the game, and specifically his performance. It doesn’t take much to predict the opening paragraphs if he turns in a sub-standard, or even an average game; “Israel Folau’s off-field troubles seem to have followed him on his return from injury…”
But the thing is, Folau has brought this all upon himself. I respect Folau’s right to express an opinion, but so do I respect Brad Weber’s. And just as I’m entitled to point out where he bombed a try by not offloading to an unmarked player, or why opposition sides exposed his back-field positioning.
Folau has invited this scrutiny upon himself, but is he ready for what it might reveal about his game?