Israel Folau poised for shock rugby league return with Tonga

Sydney (AFP) –


Sacked Wallaby star Israel Folau is poised for a shock return to rugby league, making himself available alongside his brother for Tonga in upcoming Tests against Australia and Britain, the Pacific nation said Monday.

The devoutly Christian fullback, who has Tongan parents, was fired by Rugby Australia in May after he posted online that "hell awaits" gay people and others he considers sinners, with court action for unfair dismissal pending.

"Israel and John Folau return to Rugby League and will play for Mate Ma'a Tonga," the Tonga National Rugby League (TNRL) said on Facebook.

Folau, who was set to play a key role for Australia at the ongoing World Cup in Japan before his fall from grace, said he was excited by a return to the game.

"I don't want to bring any of my personal matters into this and I am grateful that the RLIF (Rugby League International Federation) have endorsed my availability," he reportedly said in a TNRL statement.

"What I will do now is focus on playing great rugby league and do my talking on the field."

Despite his optimism, Australia's National Rugby League (NRL) cast doubt on whether he has the full backing of rugby league authorities.

It said in a report on its website that "it is understood there will be a strong push by members of the board of the Rugby League International Federation to veto the move at an upcoming meeting".

The NRL has previously said he would not be allowed to play rugby league in Australia again.

- Divisive talent -

Folau, who grew up in Sydney, began his sporting career in rugby league, making his debut for Melbourne Storm as a teenager in 2007, grabbing the winning try on his debut to telegraph his arrival.

During his meteoric rise, Folau broke the National Rugby League's record for most tries in a debut season and won rookie of the year.

Folau played 90 games in the sport with the Storm and Brisbane Broncos between 2007 and 2010, making eight appearances for Australia before switching to Australian Rules and then rugby union with the NSW Waratahs.

He made his Wallabies debut in 2013 against the British and Irish Lions and went on to win 73 caps before being sacked.

His firing proved hugely divisive and he is pursuing court action for unfair dismissal and restraint of trade, with a hearing set for next February.

"These guys (Israel and John) are great footballers and bring size, pace and skill to the team," Tonga coach Frank Endacott told reporters. "They will make a huge impact in the team and provide exciting attack options all over the park."

Tonga are set to play Britain in Hamilton, New Zealand on October 26 and Australia in Auckland a week later.