Catalans Dragons coach Steve McNamara is hoping that the media attention surrounding Israel Folau will begin to decrease following his try-scoring debut for the club against Castleford Tigers on Saturday night.
Folau touched down with his first touch of the ball in the seventh minute of the Dragons’ 36-18 third round win over the Tigers in Perpignan in front of a large number of journalists, photographers and camera crews from France, the UK and Australia.
Sky, BBC, Channel Nine and Channel Seven television crews were at the stadium to follow Folau’s first appearance for the Dragons alongside national newspaper reporters and writers for France’s leading sports publication, L’Equipe, who made a rare trip to Stade Gilbert Brutus.
At a packed post-match press conference, McNamara said: “I have congratulated the team because it has been difficult. To have journalists from all around the world descending on this region, chasing players around in cars and following people and all the other bits that go with it, the players have had to deal with that and credit to them.
“The plan all along was to get Israel on the field and give him time. I understand the headlines but let him play, let him get on the field and we’ll understand the person a little more after that.
“People are judging him on a headline, what they’ve seen on social media. When I sign a player I look at him from a football perspective then I work out what type of person he is. Is he a good person, is he a good player? Will he add value to the team on and off the field?
“I’m not judging him on any political or religious beliefs. We quite clearly do not believe in what he has said, we have made that clear in our club statement. I’m only looking at the player.”
McNamara was impressed with his new recruit’s performance. Folau played a full eighty minutes, ten years since his last game of Rugby League and nine months after his last game in Australian rugby union.
The Dragons coach added: “I thought Israel played really well. Obviously, scoring with his first touch settled his nerves. He was nervous before the game.
“I was probably most impressed with his defence. He was clearly going to be an attacking threat but it was great to see him play his first game of Rugby League after only training for ten days with the team so it was good to see that sort of defensive performance. It’s really encouraging going forward with him.
“I knew Israel was ready to play, I wouldn’t risk him if he wasn’t but we weren’t quite sure how he would cope with the attrition of eighty minutes. I know he’s certainly tired now but he pulled up really well considering everything that’s gone before.”
Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell said Folau’s debut had not affected his team’s performance, adding: “There was no distraction at all tonight, I just thought it was a poor performance from us, we started the first half badly and started the second half badly. Catalans were pretty strong and we were just out-muscled, we weren’t good enough.
“Israel Folau is a top line player, he’s dangerous, obviously on kicks and we found that out pretty quickly but that didn’t have any effect on the game. We had the same thing with the first game of the season against Toronto with Sonny Bill Williams but these things have nothing to do with the game. It’s all about us.
“It was a game to forget for us, pretty quickly, hopefully.”
Catalans are working with officials at Wakefield Trinity to rearrange last week’s postponed fixture at Belle Vue. The Dragons have no fixture this coming weekend following the cancellation of their game at St Helens to make way for the World Club Challenge and are keen to return to Wakefield as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, Catalans Dragons will hold an investigation this morning into allegations that a Castleford supporter was asked to take down rainbow-coloured flags in Perpignan on Saturday night.
Tigers fan Alison Grey complained on social media and spoke to a Sky Sports tv crew at the ground following the match, alleging that security staff at Stade Gilbert Brutus ordered her to remove the flag from the Puig Aubert stand during the Dragons-Tigers third round Super League clash.
The Castleford supporter stated on Twitter: “I was twice asked to remove it. Firstly, as it was against health and safety. Secondly because it is against club policy.”
The multi-coloured emblems are a symbol of support for LGBTQ+ issues and they are expected to be seen at Super League games involving Catalans this season following the club’s decision to sign former NRL and ARU player Israel Folau whose extreme religious views on homosexuality have caused offence.
Wigan Warriors and Wakefield Trinity have already decided to encourage supporters to celebrate LGBTQ+ inclusivity at their upcoming games against the Dragons by holding Pride days when the French club plays at the DW Stadium and Belle Vue this season.
A spokesman for Catalans Dragons told League Express: “We do not know the full details at the moment but the matter will be discussed at Monday’s post-match conference.
“We actively encourage people to bring banners and flags because it is part of the match-day experience and it adds to the atmosphere of the game.
“The only thing we require is that any banner does not contain offensive language and that the banners are not placed over advertising hoardings containing our sponsors’ names.
“We have been made aware of one supporter’s complaints and we will fully investigate what happened.”
Super League released a statement which read: “Everyone should have the right to respectfully express their views. We are investigating. We will receive a full report by the end of the weekend and have more details on Monday.”