Rugby Australia chief admits Folau regrets but downplays Pacific backlash

Sydney (AFP) –


Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle has downplayed any potential backlash from Polynesian players sharing similar religious beliefs to Israel Folau, while admitting to regrets over the divisive scandal.

The star Wallaby and devoutly Christian fullback was sacked from his Aus$4-million (US$2.7-million), four-year contract on Friday for homophobic comments after a tribunal found him guilty of a "high-level" breach of the governing body's code of conduct.

It followed Super Rugby's record try-scorer posting a banner on Instagram last month that read: "Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators -- Hell awaits you."

He was involved in a similar tirade last year.

The case proved complex, pitting his right to freedom of religious expression against restrictions on hate speech.

Players of Pacific Islander heritage make up a large chunk of Australia's professional playing ranks, with many sharing a similarly deep Christian faith, and concerns were expressed that their beliefs were under attack.

But Castle said she was confident Folau's sacking would not cause disunity, characterising the issue as simply a contract breach.

"I am very confident that our players of faith feel comfortable expressing their faith and will continue to do so, as we have seen over the last couple off weeks," she said in an interview on the Rugby Australia website Saturday.

"But they also need to understand, and they do understand, that they need to express those views in a respectful way."

Castle said the issue with Folau was that it had been made clear to him last year "where the line stood" on how he communicated his views, yet he ignored this with his post last month.

"What I would say is that Israel also knew the implications," said Castle.

Folau, who is of Tongan background, has been unshakeable in his convictions and said on Friday that "upholding my religious beliefs should not prevent my ability to work or play for my club or country".

He is considering his options, which could involve an appeal with a new three-person panel or taking the matter to the courts, with 72 hours to decide.

Several senior players of Pacific background, including veteran Wallaby Sekope Kepu and Queensland Reds captain Samu Kerevi, took to Instagram to commiserate with him on Friday.

Castle said there were no winners from the row, and admitted regret to not foreseeing further potential problems after Folau was let off without sanction last year.

"But I probably would have had to have a really good crystal ball and I didn't have that," she said.

"What I had was some conversations with Israel where I believed we were clear that he understood where the line was.

"From where I sit, he signed a new contract and that contract had the same code of conduct in it, it had the same values, it had the same expectations set out.

"He also completed some significant training around what was offensive in certain communities."