Israel Folau debut gives rugby league the spotlight it craves, but at a cost

Aaron Bower
Photograph: Raymond Roig/AFP via Getty Images

How does a sport get everything it has ever wanted without courting some controversy along the way? That is a question rugby league has spent the past fortnight arguing about with itself. Practically since the sport was created in 1895, rugby league has craved a greater slice of the spotlight and pushed for mainstream media attention on a wider scale.

This weekend league will get its moment in the spotlight when Super League’s most controversial signing makes his debut in Perpignan. Israel Folau’s arrival at Catalans Dragons sparked a spike of interest in league that many of the sport’s devoted fans have craved for decades – but this is a true test of whether there is actually such a thing as bad publicity.

“I do not think his signing should have been entertained whatsoever,” said the Wakefield chief executive, Michael Carter. His counterpart at Hull KR, Neil Hudgell, subsequently wrote a letter to Catalans threatening legal action should the competition suffer any losses as a result of Folau’s well-publicised views that cost him his contract with Rugby Australia last year.

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Folau himself has now admitted he contemplated walking away altogether, telling the local Perpignan newspaper L’Independent: “Yes, of course I thought about ending my career and doing other things.” No one, it seems, wants Folau here except Catalans themselves, who have promised to tear up his contract if there is any recurrence of his homophobic social media posts that emerged last year.

The uproar surrounding Folau may trick some outsiders into thinking rugby league is a squeaky-clean sport where even being caught stealing a chocolate bar from the newsagents as a child blackballs you from the game for life. It is far from that, as events concerning the Warrington centre Anthony Gelling have proven this week. Almost every club that supported Hudgell’s letter have housed a controversial figure at some stage.

Catalans themselves have had no shortage of players with chequered pasts; Todd Carney, Kenny Edwards and Greg Bird have all arrived in Perpignan following various off-field controversies. Some have been exiled from Australia’s NRL as a result of their misdemeanours. The big difference here though is that they and so many others have shown something Folau has not: remorse. Even a fortnight on from his unveiling, there remains a feeling of trepidation in the sport’s corridors surrounding Folau. No club chief executives – who had privately lambasted Catalans’ decision to sign the 30-year-old – were willing to be quoted publicly on their thoughts ahead of his debut on Saturday.

Israel Folau trains with his Catalans Dragons teammates. Photograph: Raymond Roig/AFP via Getty Images

Now rugby league watches with bated breath to see how his Catalans career unfolds, and the impact it will have on the sport. Many have had their say, Super League has introduced rulings – albeit somewhat flimsy ones – to try to block controversial signings such as Folau in the future, but the fact is Folau is here and is ready to play.

Stripping back the outrage towards his views for a moment, seeing how Folau performs on the field will be fascinating. With the 30-year-old likely to play in the centres – and reportedly training well despite having not played league for a decade – Castleford, Catalans’ opponents on on Saturday, admit they have, according to their coach, Daryl Powell, devised a plan to see if Folau is “still any good” at the game he grew up playing.

You only have to look back two years to remember the furore surrounding Ben Barba, who had to serve a lengthy drugs ban after joining St Helens from Toulon in mid-2017, amid considerable concern from rival clubs over him being allowed to join Super League. By the time he left St Helens 18 months later, any misdemeanours had been forgotten, and Barba had won the competition’s Man of Steel award following a remarkable 2018 season for the Saints.

Folau’s ability suggests he could easily do something similar – but Barba made a public and conscious effort to atone. Folau has not, and that is what stings many the most. Thankfully for both him and Catalans – who have been at the centre of an unprecedented media storm this week – the talking will stop at 5pm on Saturday: at least for 80 minutes.

Rugby league has spent two tumultuous weeks wrestling with its own conscience over Folau. With a new TV deal that could shape the game’s long-term future to negotiate over the next 18 months, some – albeit privately – think the boom in exposure from Folau may actually help. Others think it will hinder. Only at the end of this latest saga will we genuinely know the answer to that: and whether this has done any good for a sport stuck in a 125-year crisis of confidence.