A Foul or A Fool

MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, reacts to the arrival of ISRAEL FOLAU into the Betfred Super League.

In my spare time, what little I have, I have a weakness for cryptic crosswords.

Occasionally I have prepared cryptic crosswords for League Express and Rugby League World magazine.

So I’ll tip you off about a future clue that might one day appear in a crossword that I might compile.

“Catalans arrange a foul.”

The answer is obviously an anagram of the surname of their new signing Israel Folau.

I’m fairly sure that the other Super League clubs would heartily approve the apparent feeling behind that clue, having called foul themselves at their meeting today, with some of them even putting the Catalans “on notice” for any losses they may suffer commercially from the Dragons’ decision to sign him.

I’m not sure how they could calculate such losses, if any arose, and I’m even less sure how they would have a legal claim against the Catalans for those losses.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in Rugby League that has been so divisive as the Dragons’ decision to swoop to sign the rugby union star, who I recall watching many years ago when he was touring this country with the Australian Combined High Schools Rugby League squad.

He was a brilliant young player in those days and it wasn’t long before he was starring for the Melbourne Storm.

Unfortunately he then went to rugby union, but of course that code has now dispensed with his services after his Instagram account suggested that homosexuals and others would be consigned to hell if they didn’t mend their ways.

His Instagram post, which presumably reflects his religious beliefs, was immediately picked up by sections of the Australian media, including in particular the influential Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter Fitzsimons, who also happens to be a former Australian rugby union international, and Folau was widely condemned for his beliefs without him being asked to explain them calmly and rationally.

In particular he was criticised as a role model for the likely impact his Instagram post might have had on young people who were wrestling with their own sexuality in Australia and beyond.

I don’t know how many young people would be influenced by that, although the damage done by his original post was amplified many times over by people like Fitzsimons focusing on it and shouting about it from the rooftops.

Turn to the Sydney Morning Herald today and you’ll find him writing about it again.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Folau is of Tongan heritage, and that homosexuality is still illegal in the Kingdom of Tonga.

So I would imagine that Folau might not be the only Tongan who has those views, which of course would be regrettable.

But the strange thing about Folau is that in 2016 he was the poster boy for the Bingham Cup, which is a rugby union competition in Australia for gay rugby union teams. Folau featured on the front page of a gay magazine with his arm around a gay rugby player in a photo that clearly implied that he wished them and the tournament well.

So it does seem a little strange to see him later on posting such apocalyptic predictions about the fate of homosexuals who don’t change their ways. I suspect his response would be that he was offering advice to sinners to repent or their behaviour will see them suffer in the afterlife, although any chance of him being given the opportunity to put his own case forward seems to have severely diminished now that he has apparently been given a gagging order by the RFL, Super League and the Catalans Dragons.

The thing that we have to bear in mind is that people who hold strong religious views usually believe that they will be saved but that others, who don’t share their views, will be doomed to some version of hell in the afterlife.

Certainly my grandmother, who was a fervent Roman Catholic, believed that anyone who wasn’t a Roman Catholic at the time of their death would be consigned to hell.

I’m afraid I long since gave up on religion, but occasionally when I speak to religious people about how they see the afterlife, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, they confirm that only people who share their religion will be saved in their eyes.

But of course not all religious people believe that homosexuality is necessarily sinful, although the more fundamental versions of those faiths probably do.

We could, of course, ban Israel Folau from playing Rugby League because of the way he expressed his beliefs.

The statement issued today by Super League certainly seems to suggest that it would like to do that.

It seems ironic to me that Rugby League is now talking about banning people for their expressed religious beliefs when our sport was itself banned for many years from a number of British institutions, with Rugby League players frequently thrown out of rugby union clubs, for example, for the sin of having played Rugby League prior to rugby union professionalising itself in 1995.

I spent a long time fighting on behalf of Rugby League against unjust discrimination when I was the Chairman of the Student Rugby League and the Freedom in Rugby campaign in the 1980s.

So I’m reluctant now to join the clamour to ban Folau for his beliefs, even though they are diametrically opposite to what I believe myself.

But if we do want to ban him, then we might have to ask ourselves whether, given that, as I’ve already pointed out, homosexuality is illegal in Tonga, we should ban the Tongans from the 2021 World Cup.

I think we might find that a step too far, even in these highly politicised times.

In the first week in March the RLBackChat programme will return to the airwaves.

Perhaps we should invite Keegan Hirst, the openly gay Rugby League player who plays for Halifax, and Folau to come on as guests together to talk about both Rugby League and life in general.

I suspect it would be a very civilised and enjoyable discussion and we would all learn a lot.

But don’t bank on it happening.

Read Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column every week in League Express. This is an expanded version of an article in this week’s newspaper.