Israel Folau: Catalans Dragons signing deserved end of ‘life sentence’ exile, says coach

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Israel Folau

Israel Folau should not face the “life sentence” of being banished from sport despite his history of homophobic comments, says Catalans Dragons head coach Steve McNamara.

The 30-year-old’s arrival at Catalans prompted criticism and even threats of legal action from rival clubs related to potential loss of income.

Folau had been out of sport since he was sacked by Rugby Australia in April.

“He did deserve a second chance,” McNamara told BBC Sport.

“I spoke to him in depth for a long period of time over a number of occasions. I felt it was right and he deserved the opportunity, it shouldn’t be a life sentence what he was given.

“We researched Izzy as a person completely, as a coach my decision was based around his rugby league ability, his ability to add positivity to the dressing room and to really increase our opportunities of winning. It was based around that and his being a good personality.”

Folau has been named in Catalans’ 21-man squad to face Castleford Tigers in Perpignan on Saturday.

‘If I had reservations I wouldn’t have signed him’

Israel Folau

McNamara’s Dragons brought Folau’s rugby league exile to an end when they agreed a deal for the former Australia and Queensland player, who left the code for Australian rules football at the end of the 2011 season.

He switched to rugby union in 2013, and scored 37 tries in 73 Tests for the Wallabies before being sacked for saying on social media that “Hell awaits” gay people, having previously been warned over his posts.

He later reached a settlement with Rugby Australia after suing the governing body for alleged religious discrimination.

Folau’s options regarding a switch back to league in his home country were limited as Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter Beattie ruled out him being registered.

By contrast, the Rugby Football League and Super League said they were unable to block the deal when Catalans put forward their proposals – despite the regrets of Super League chief executive Robert Elstone.

It led to Super League clubs voting in new powers to veto future ‘controversial’ signings.

With Folau in training and likely to make his Catalans debut against Castleford on Saturday, the challenge for McNamara now is to ensure a smooth transition.

“From the outside you know the headline, not the person,” he said. “My job was to find out about the person, the complete person. I did that with thorough detail.

“If I had [reservations], I wouldn’t have signed him.

“It’s very difficult [coming back to rugby league], but that’s what the best players do, that’s what the champions do, they thrive on the challenge. He’s given himself a big challenge, not just changing sport, but changing countries, continents, everything that goes with it.

“It’s not just on the field, it’s different cultures, different way of living and different language etc. It’s a big challenge for all of us but particularly for Izzy.”

‘Israel Folau spoke to the squad’

Folau is not the first player to join Catalans in controversial circumstances, as Greg Bird, Todd Carney and Kenny Edwards have all previously arrived in Perpignan following off-field issues.

For the players themselves, it has been a case of making a judgement as they found him, said England international Sam Tomkins – now in his second year at the Stade Gilbert Brutus.

“I’ve been in situations where people have preconceived ideas of me from what they’ve seen in the media or any other environment,” Tomkins added.

“So we wanted Izzy to come in and prove what sort of person he is, he came in spoke to everybody on the first day and trained brilliantly since.

“He put his position across, I won’t go into details as it’s a private conversation, but he spoke to the boys, very open, not hiding anything and he said if anyone wanted to speak about anything at all, he’s more than willing.

“All the boys know they’ve got that if they need to, he’s very approachable.”

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BBC Sport – Rugby League

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