Catalans Dragons have been left reeling by the media reaction to their decision to rescue Israel Folau from the sporting wilderness.
The controversial dual-code Australian international centre has signed a one-year-deal to play in Perpignan and he will link up with his new team-mates this week.
The decision to recruit Folau has caused uproar in the UK, France and Australia, because of his outspoken comments on religion and homosexuality.
The Dragons have been besieged by global television and newspaper enquiries and the club has imposed a media lockdown on the Folau issue. Sky Sports sent their senior reporter Fraser Dainton and a camera crew to the south of France last week to gauge opinions from LBGTQ+ groups and Dragons supporters.
A planned press conference this week to announce his arrival may now be cancelled as the Dragons decide how to deal with the Folau fall-out.
Club President Bernard Guasch told local media at the weekend: “When we learned that Folau was on the market and that he was finished with the legal proceedings in Australia and he made his apologies to the rugby union authorities, I decided that we were going to recruit a rugby player.
“I do not want to get into any controversy at all. I think the player has already paid for his comments since he was fired from the Waratahs and he was not able to play in the World Cup.
“He said something that should not have been said. We all agree on this.
“I discussed this with our manager (Steve McNamara) and we did not agree sometimes. But at some point, when we take only the rugby player, and when we have the opportunity to sign such a player, we go there.
“We want to give Israel a new opportunity to shine on the pitch. We do not support or agree with his previously expressed controversial views and we are totally committed to our club and our sport being open and welcoming to everyone.
“We do not believe that those views should be publicly expressed, especially by a high-profile sportsperson. We have signed an agreement with the RFL that any transgression will trigger an immediate termination of Israel’s contract and a substantial fine for the club.”
Guasch will be present at a Super League meeting later this week, where the Folau issue is expected to be top of the agenda, with some clubs concerned about the reaction from sponsors.
The 30-year-old former NRL, Australian football and rugby union star was sacked by the ARU last year after he posted opinions on social media regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
He then suggested that the recent Australian bushfires may have been a punishment from God.
Airline company Qantas threatened to withdraw sponsorship from the ARU unless Folau was sanctioned. But he launched a legal challenge against the decision to sack him and earned an undisclosed financial settlement from the union authorities.
Catalans’ decision to offer him a contract has caused a furore among fellow Super League clubs. Wigan Warriors immediately announced that their home game against the Dragons on
March 22nd would be promoted as a Pride Day in support of LGBTQ+ groups. Players will be wearing rainbow socks and laces during the game and supporters are being encouraged to attend and make their feelings known at the game.
Catalans’ kit manufacturers O’Neills have issued a statement distancing themselves from Folau’s opinions.
Wakefield Trinity Chief Executive Michael Carter has been one of the most vocal critics of the decision to sign the player.
“His registration should have been refused. His views are abhorrent in a modern world,” said Carter.
Conscious of Folau’s recent legal challenge to the ARU, Rugby League’s ruling authorities in the UK made clear their frustration at being unable to deny his registration. A statement from the RFL last week read: “However distasteful his comments, we don’t believe that, under our current regulatory framework, we can prevent his participation in the sport.
Super League Chief Executive Robert Elstone added: “I have sought the opinion of informed voices connected to our game, and the majority share my disappointment that one of our clubs has chosen to sign him.
“There is a strong feeling that this lets down many people connected to our sport. I made Catalans Dragons aware of those views.
“However, Super League does not have the authority to veto the registration of players and is satisfied by the due diligence carried out by the RFL.”
Catalans themselves have been left reeling by the chorus of condemnation, but the feeling amongst supporters is generally supportive of the signing.
Long-time Catalans supporter Romuald Peronne, the owner of a vineyard in nearby Banyuls, told League Express: “I don’t think many people agree with his comments and I think he should keep them to himself.
“But he is a great player and I don’t think he should be banned from playing. I know many supporters are looking forward to him joining the side and I don’t think there is much local opposition to him as a player.”
Robert Morgues, an 87-year-old Dragons supporter told League Express: “I have played, coached and supported Rugby League in France all my life.
“This club is very special and I support the decision to sign Israel Folau. Many people have many views I do not agree with and as long as they keep them to themselves he should be allowed to play.
“I have seen many real problems in this region, from Franco and Hitler’s fascism through poverty, floods and fire. I don’t think people are too worried about what one man says. Keep him quiet and let him play.”