25 Sep 2020 5:21 PM +00:00

Israel Folau: Plenty of suitors but Rugby League should think twice

Picture credit: www.davidmolloyphotography.com

"Being inclusive can’t just be a word on a wall. You have to live and breathe it every day. Sometimes you get challenged on that. Inclusiveness also means everyone gets their view." 

As the fallout from Israel Folau's explosive Instagram comments continue, these were the strong words that NRL CEO Todd Greenberg had in response to speculation that Folau may seek a return to Rugby League.  While Folau's value on the field is undeniable, serious questions need to be raised about whether his outspoken views pose a serious threat to corporate dollars and the league's push for inclusiveness. If inclusiveness means that everyone gets to provide a point of view, then it begs the question - who's view is most valuable?

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An outspoken star

If you haven't followed the story, Folau caused controversy a fortnight ago when he remarked on an Instagram post that homosexuals are destined for hell "unless they repent of their sins and turn to God". This isn't the first time the devout Christian has been vocal about his religious views on social media, but it is the first time where his opinions have placed serious pressure on the Australian Rugby Union to act. 

Facing loud objection from many of the code's sponsors, Folau was summoned to ARU headquarters on Monday where he met with former Bulldogs and now ARU CEO; Raelene Castle. That meeting didn't result in any drastic action from the ARU or Folau, but it increased speculation that the NRL may be a viable destination should Rugby Union distance themselves from the former Storm and Broncos star. At 29 years of age, Folau would still offer a lot to any NRL club, but the major sticking point would be his price tag. On a lucrative ARU contract worth over $1 million, there are only a handful of clubs with the cap space to accommodate a player of Folau's quality. 

Eels back for a second bite at the cherry


If Folau was to become a free agent, the Parramatta Eels loom as one of the most likely destinations. In 2012, with Folau coming off the back of an indifferent stint with the Greater Western Sydney Giants, Parramatta were within hours of signing the former representative centre on a four-year, $3 million dollar deal. Contract scrutiny from then NRL auditor; Ian Schubert, meant that Folau turned his back on the Eels in favour of a stint in Rugby Union. No doubt the Eels would again be keen on Folau this time around. 

Parramatta is a club in crisis and would benefit from a player cleanout. There is strong mail that the Eels may look to move Corey Norman on, following a series of poor performances. This move would free part of the cap space required to sign Folau, but Paramatta would also need to move on one or two ageing stars. Michael Jennings is contracted at the Eels until the end of 2019 but has lacked his trademark speed and potency in recent seasons. Equally, Jarryd Hayne has started the season out of form and looks a shadow of the player he was when leading the Eels to a memorable Grand Final run in 2009. If one of these two were to move on, then Folau would be a more than capable replacement and would have no trouble slotting into the centres - a position he made his own during stints with the Storm and Broncos. 

A welcome homecoming

If fullback is more Folau's style, then he needn't look any further than the club that handed him his NRL debut. This season will be the last that Billy Slater plays for the Melbourne Storm and Folau promises to be a more than capable replacement.  For a club that has relied on the dependability of Slater for the past 15 years, having the experience and talent of Folau in the number one jersey would make for a seamless succession plan. 

Money would not be a problem for the Storm either. With Slater off contract, Melbourne would have a significant chunk of the $1 million-plus required to sign Folau and would have no issue securing a Third Party deal to top up the remainder. Reuniting with Craig Bellamy also provides a huge lure given Bellamy was the man that gave Folau his start in the top grade. 

Stuart to try again

While it was Parramatta who were closest to securing Folau in 2012, the man leading that push was the Eel's coach at the time - Ricky Stuart. With Junior Paulo on his way back to Parramatta, and Blake Austin rejecting a $700,000 contract extension during the pre-season, the Raiders should have no issue stumping up the sizeable fee to lure Folau to the nation's capital. 

The Raider's could also use Folau as a player to build the club around given their past struggles to attract and retain talent. The Canberra faithful have watched as developed juniors - Todd Carney, Josh Dugan and Anthony Milford all moved on to better (and more lucrative) contracts at other clubs. It's a source of constant frustration for Raiders fans, and one which could all be forgiven if they were to lure a player of Folau's quality to the nation's capital. Folau would also have no issue playing the role of marquee man at Canberra - it's a similar part he assumed during the establishment of the GWS Giants.  

Would you really want him?


While there are several clubs with the financial means and power to secure Folau, questions remain on whether he is a sound investment for any club. Todd Greenberg was vocal during the week, declaring that Folau's comments "would not (be acceptable)" in the NRL. What that means in terms of a playing contract is unclear and further complicated by Greenberg's subsequent remarks that Folau would be welcomed back into the league with open arms. What we know for sure, is that any club that takes on Folau would do so at severe risk to their sponsorship dollars and credibility.  

The NRL has taken a very strong stance on inclusiveness and equality recently. They were the first Australian sporting code to include a float in the Sydney Mardi Gras and just last year, publicly supported the same-sex marriage debate using Macklemore's Grand Final performance of 'Same Love'. Allowing Folau back into the game so readily could be seen to undo many of the positive steps rugby league has taken to promote inclusiveness in the game.  

Every individual and player is entitled to their own opinion, but it's when these opinions border on hate that organisations should take a strong stance. Sports stars like Folau don't merely represent their own personal brand - they are representatives of an entire sporting code. When choosing to voice opinions on a public forum like social media, they need to do so with a level of appreciation and empathy for what can be sensitive topics of discussion. 

The recent condemnation of Matt Lodge has shown that plenty within the NRL community have little appetite for poor behaviour and even less patience for an apparent lack of accountability. Rugby League fans have become disillusioned, sick of seeing the game they love tarnished. Everyone is entitled to their view but in the modern game where money talks and public sentiment is king, it's the voice of the fan that should reign supreme. No star is bigger than an entire code. That's something worth remembering should Folau's contract make its way across Todd Greenberg's desk. 

It's a talking point that's sure to ignite plenty of discussions. Would you want Folau at your club? Tell us in the poll and comments below.

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