Israel Folau: a slow-moving disaster a year in the making | Bret Harris

The tragedy of the Israel Folau imbroglio is that it was so preventable.

In a statement released by Rugby Australia on Wednesday, chief executive Raelene Castle said Folau’s decision to request a code of conduct hearing into his alleged contract breach for posting anti-gay comments on social media “was not an unexpected outcome”.

That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Rugby Australia should have seen this train wreck coming.

When Folau first posted anti-gay comments a year ago Rugby Australia was in a position to take decisive action which could have nipped the entire issue in the bud.

At the time Rugby Australia was renegotiating Folau’s contract. All it had to do was decide not to renew the contract and the problem would go away, literally.

Instead, Rugby Australia gave Folau a slap on the wrist and a new four-year contract worth $4m, a high-stakes gamble that backfired disastrously.

Rugby Australia accused Folau at the time of contravening its policy of inclusiveness, which prohibited players from making disrespectful comments about a person’s sexuality.

If Folau committed a sackable offence, why was he re-signed?

There was enormous pressure on Rugby Australia to re-sign Folau, the Wallabies’ highest-profile player, heading into a World Cup year.

Instead of disciplining Folau, Rugby Australia sought assurances he would not do it again and then re-signed him to a rich, long-term deal.

Rugby Australia claims Folau broke a promise to stop making his controversial social media comments.

It is reasonable for an employer to give an employee a warning not to repeat a transgression, but how realistic was it to expect that Folau would desist from posting his religious-inspired comments?

Folau has shown himself to be uncompromising in his pursuit of his religious ideals. He has stated more than once that he is prepared to walk away from the game before he compromises his beliefs.

If Folau’s comments were such a huge issue for Rugby Australia and its sponsors, they should have cut him loose when they had the chance.

Now Rugby Australia is trying to sack Folau one year into a four-year contract and it could cost the national union millions of dollars, money it reportedly has not got to waste.

The code of conduct hearing, mooted for sometime next week, will determine whether Folau has breached his contract or not.

If the hearing finds Folau is in breach of his contract and Rugby Australia sacks him, he could sue for unlawful dismissal on the grounds of religious freedom, triggering a protracted legal battle.

If Rugby Australia prefers to avoid a lengthy legal fight, it may agree to pay out Folau’s contract, but that would be a costly exercise.

Folau would receive the bulk of his contract and then presumably head off to Britain or France for another big payday, while Rugby Australia contemplates its losses.

But it would be even more costly if Rugby Australia engaged in a long court battle with Folau only to then lose the case.

Even more intriguingly, what will happen if the hearing finds that Folau is not in breach of his contract and is free to continue playing for the Wallabies and the NSW Waratahs, who have stood him down?

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has stated that he will not select Folau again even if he is cleared, which means Rugby Australia may end up paying him millions of dollars to not even play.

In an interview with the ABC’s 7.30 program, Cheika said Folau was entitled to his religious beliefs, but that the controversy surrounding them had become a distraction.

“The beliefs of the individual, the diversity inside the team whether it’s from where we come from, a lot of us from different lands, or our beliefs, inside the team that’s no problem. That’s accepted. It’s always been like that,” Cheika said.

“It’s when it gets outside of the team and it starts to affect the team adversely from the outside that it becomes a problem.

“The focus priority has to be on football and what’s going to make our team better. Once we get distracted, and this has been distracting in quite a divisive way around the world, really, it’s going to have an effect on the team because we are not doing what we should be doing, which is just concentrating on footy.”

Whatever happens, Rugby Australia may well find itself in a no-win situation. Which in the circumstances is not an unexpected outcome.


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