Israel Folau's return to Rugby League with Tonga blocked

Publish Date
Friday, 27 September 2019, 10:34AM
Getty Images

Getty Images

Sacked Wallaby star Israel Folau's bid to revive his career playing rugby league for Tonga hit a setback today when officials backing the plan were suspended over unrelated matters.

The Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) said it had suspended the board of Tonga's rugby league over concerns raised by players and the Pacific island's Prime Minister.

"Based upon the volume and magnitude of representations received, the (RLIF) board decided that it needed to intervene immediately," it said in a statement released Friday.

Folau, fired by Rugby Australia over social media posts warning "hell awaits" gays and other sinners, had worked with the Tongan officials on a bold plan to play rugby league for the country in upcoming Tests against Australia and Britain.

But the 30-year-old appears to have unwittingly inserted himself into a bitter power struggle over control of the sport in Tonga, and ended up on the losing side.

As his former Wallabies teammates battle for the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Folau faces being frozen out of a second sporting code.

The Australian newspaper said the board suspension effectively left Folau's league bid "dead and buried", while the Sydney Morning Herald said it was "all but over".

Tonga's league players revolted when the board sacked coach Kristian Woolf last month in a dispute over finances, threatening to boycott upcoming internationals.

The players listed several grievances including Woolf's sacking via email and the failure to distribute funds to the game's grassroots in Tonga.

Tonga's Acting Prime Minister Semisi Sika wrote to the RLIF expressing concern over the situation and calling for the board to be stood down.

In a last-ditch effort to garner support, the TNRL announced that Folau and his brother John would be selected for the upcoming end-of-year Tests. This is despite Folau having not played since rugby league since 2010 when he walked out on the game for a stint in the AFL.

The TNRL blindsided the RLIF by incorrectly claiming it had cleared him to play.

RLIF deputy director, Australia's Peter Beattie, has previously said that Folau "fails the NRL's inclusiveness culture" and would not be welcome in the sport.

Beattie supported on Friday supported suspending the Tonga board, which had been Folau's main backer.

"It is untenable for a national administration that doesn't have the support of its government or players to continue," hesaid.

Australia's National Rugby League reported on its website that Woolf and the dissident players — which include NRL stars Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita and Will Hopoate — were set to return as a result of the board's suspension.

The NRL, which controls the World Nines, had said Tonga would not be allowed to play in the October 18-19 event unless an interim board took over the national side.

Folau is seeking millions of dollars in damages from Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby, claiming he was unlawfully dismissed for expressing views consistent with his devout Christian beliefs.

The governing body says Folau breached a player code of conduct by making anti-gay comments on social media.

It's understood Folau, who had his Rugby Australia contract torn up earlier this year for social media posts in which he said that "hell" awaited homosexuals, will not be considered for selection by Woolf given he has strong backline candidates at his disposal.

Beattie said the decision was not based on trying to block Folau's return to rugby league.

It was designed to ensure the game capitalises on Tonga's progress as a Test nation since their 2017 World Cup semi-final appearance.

"Israel Folau's name wasn't even mentioned, this has never been about him," Beattie said.

"It's been about resolving this internal dispute in Tonga."

The TNRL now have seven days to appeal their decision and it's expected the matter will end up in the courts.

This article was first published on and is republished here with permission

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