In amongst all the news about the ramifications of the New South Wales lockdown, the eligibility fiasco surrounding Ronaldo Mulitalo and Queensland’s general march into the abyss, the return of Israel Folau seems to have gone under the radar.
Having been released from his contract with Catalans Dragons, he has now been confirmed with Queensland Rugby League (QRL) and thus eligible to play for Southport Tigers. It is very unlikely that we will ever have all of the details from his French departure. That they’ve managed to avoid any acrimonious court proceedings and end on reasonably tolerable terms is something.
We do know that he returned to Australia for a ‘personal family situation’, and it’s only right that his request for privacy should be respected. The toll of experiencing family issues from the other side of the world, during a pandemic where governments are itching for any excuse to close borders, should never be underestimated.
On this side of the world, it’s been very fascinating to see the fallout from a sporting point of view. With replacement Dean Whare (formerly of Penrith), they finally seem to be clicking and reaching their potential. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we see them lifting the Super League trophy at Old Trafford come October.
But in Australia, the story takes on a much more socio-cultural dynamic. The media aren’t gathered because of the transfer policy of a Gold Coast league club. He may very well be excited by the prospect of playing with his two brothers at Southport. According to Catalans President Bernard Guasch, it was part of his rationale for requesting contractual termination.
But it’s the social implications that animate Australian discussion. The justification for his ban originally given by the Queensland Rugby League was that he was already contracted to another rugby league club. Regardless of one’s thoughts about his morality, from a rugby league point of view, the first (some would say paramount) objection was that he was already contracted to another club.
With his ties to France now ended, that transhemispheric legal dynamic is gone. It would have been far easier for them to have his contract situation drag out, the longer the better. Had he still been tied to Catalans, the suits in Brisbane could justifiably speak in legalese and point to how he already had a contract that had to be upheld.
But with that out of the way, the only obstacle left were objections from those who run the sport based on his past words. We were back to square one.
That the QRL moved so quickly after his availability is noteworthy. On the one hand, there was no reason to delay. But it certainly helps them that it was announced during lockdowns, during controversies surrounding Origin eligibility, Covid bubbles and the like.
Fundamentally, the entire Israel Folau saga touches on societal aspects far beyond that of sport – and far beyond the merit of an individual that didn’t exactly light up Super League last season.
Is it right that a man should be prevented from plying his trade for what he has put on social media? Should the fact that he has shown no remorse for his words, which no doubt has had an impact on so many in society, come into play?
Personally, I’m torn on this issue. As someone who is destined for hell by pretty much every one of Israel Folau’s criteria, it is quite hurtful. But the classical liberal in me wants to leave it to the market to decide – you don’t like what he has to say, don’t turn up. Don’t want him at your club? Make your voice heard, etc etc.
We’ve heard a million times how sport and politics should be kept separate. But if that was ever the case, then recent sporting events prove that the two are interrelated. We have seen athletes in the UK, most notably footballers at Euro 2020, receive mixed reactions to their anti-racism stance. Just last week, Warrington head coach Steve Price was called out for controversial and less than PC language – to the dismay and defensive reaction from all manner of differing opinions.
For the avoidance of doubt (and future controversy) the game needs to come up with a comprehensive set of rules that govern where the line is, and at what point players can be kicked out. At the moment, any disqualification and punishment is arbitrary, prone to legal wrangling, and unclear for all. Unless we see codification, such controversy will again rear its ugly head.