STEVE BRADY is a 53-year-old journalist and a former editor of Rugby League’s longest-running publication The Rugby Leaguer, which is now combined with the biggest selling specialist weekly in Europe – League Express.
Wigan-born Steve now lives in the south of France with his wife Denise and they regularly report on the exploits of Super League’s only French team – Catalans Dragons.
Here are his thoughts on the Israel Folau situation. This article first appeared in this week’s League Express.
GEORGE Orwell’s social conscience and political stance was made clear for all to read in his books ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’ and ‘Homage To Catalonia’.
His prescient prose in the ultimate dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ foresaw many things, including thoughtcrimes and the sinister pervasiveness of Big Brother, a figure that represented a totalitarian regime controlling your every move through an omnipresent two-way digital screen.
Fear of God
He predicted many things, our George, but he couldn’t predict the signature of Israel Folau on a one-year contract at the Catalans Dragons.
News that the religiously intolerant outcast from down under had been offered redemption in the south of France put the fear of God into Rugby League’s top brass. The game that prides itself on inclusivity is now desperately seeking to exclude Folau, but is terrified of the legal and financial consequences.
“There is no room for division in our game,” said the bitterly-split joint leaders of the sport, the Rugby Football League and Super League, before they chiselled out Ten Commandments for a bewildered multitude of journalists.
“Thou Shalt Not Speak to Israel” was command number one.
The fact that Folau was in France made this command easy to obey, because no-one had his telephone number and no newspaper editor from the north of England would ever sanction air travel or – heaven forbid – an overnight hotel room.
The World calls
As the only English-speaking journalist living near Perpignan, my telescreen (thanks George) began to chirp. Offers of riches from Australia and pieces of silver from England soon had me traipsing down to Stade Gilbert Brutus to try to record Rugby League’s prodigal son on his return from the sporting wilderness.
Happily chatting to a couple of players at the main gate, I spied a vehicle pulling up and out stepped the giant figure of Folau. Before I could press the knobs on my Nikon he dashed inside, leaving me with no other option than to happily guide his wife out of the car park, negotiating pesky bollards with a broad smile on her face, aided by my helpful hand gestures.
So much for my days as a Paparazzo and farewell to a fistful of Aussie dollars!
The Dragons immediately imposed a media lockdown, but helpfully left the gates open. In my dizzy search for Izzy I wandered around the ground as cool winds drifted from the snowy slopes of Canigou, mixing with the warm city air and creating the conditions for a near-miraculous symbol. A giant rainbow appeared above the Puig Aubert Stand, which I happily captured on my camera and sent to news groups down under with the snappy title: “Izzy’t a sign?”
The lesson of history
A couple of hundred bucks back in credit, I made my way home to the Pyrenéen foothills where we broke bread (baguettes don’t stay soft for long around here) and drank water then wine.
Once again my telescreen buzzed: Sky Sports, BBC Sportsday, Radio Five Live, Talksport all wanted their pound of flesh. There were no pounds on offer, but I agreed to do several pieces to camera via Skype before calling it a day.
I slept that night and dreamt of George Orwell fighting for Catalonia and being shot in the neck by a sniper before the fall of Barcelona. I dreamt of 600,000 Spanish refugees being chased at gunpoint by Franco’s fascists over the very mountainous ground I was sleeping upon.
Those of the Retirada who were lucky enough to escape from Spain were bundled into hastily erected barbed-wire detention centres on the previously beautiful beaches of Argelés Sur Mer where they suffered appallingly. As France looked north-east to the imminent arrival of Hitler, little provision was made, or available, for the desperate Catalans in the far south.
Among those Spanish republican refugees was Josep Guasch, father of Catalans Dragons President Bernard Guasch.
Once France became partially occupied, the Vichy Government collaborated with the Nazis and the barbed-wire beach holding areas provided the blueprint for the Final Solution. Gypsies, Jews, communists and undesirables were all separated and eventually transported to Auschwitz, while others lingered in brutal conditions at a newly constructed camp at Rivesaltes.
This region became a hotbed of resistance and, once the Nazis fully occupied France, the Germans ruthlessly enforced their authority, regularly capturing and torturing to death anyone who helped allied airmen escaping to Spain.
Many Rugby League players – who had been forced to play rugby union because of the Vichy ban on the 13-a-side code – were among resistance fighters who lost their lives in the most horrific of ways.
It was the darkest of periods for a region that had been fought over by Catholics, Cathars and Romans for centuries. And that fighting spirit, that defiance against overwhelming odds, manifests itself today.
Fanning the flames
The current anti-authority Gilets Jaunes movement began in nearby Narbonne. As soon as a speed camera is erected down here it is hastily torn down, doused in petrol and set alight. Our local Péage toll booths on the Spanish motorway crossing at Le Boulou are regularly burned to the ground.
Those flames are real. The flames that Israel Folau predicts will be the fate of practising homosexuals are not. At least I hope they are not.
So, when journalists and TV presenters ask me why the people down here don’t seem to care as much about Israel Folau as those hyperventilating keyboard warriors of the UK and Oz, it is very simple. They do not have time for hypothetical issues or Twitter spats. They’re not embroiled in Facebook slanging matches or hysterical posturing by click-baiting moral arbiters in a grubby race to top the greasy pole of faux outrage.
George Orwell was no keyboard warrior – he was the real thing. He, and the people in this region have been through the wringer; they raised a wry eyebrow to the farcical wranglings of Brexit in the UK; they’re even less concerned about an exceptionally gifted young sportsman who just wants to play rugby, but can’t because of an Instagram post.
France’s laissez-faire attitude is borne out of republicanism. This is a revolutionary country and those rebellious feelings are even stronger in this part of France, northern Catalonia. George Orwell was a writer, but he put down his pencil and picked up a gun. He lived in the real world.
Rock and a hard place
The media frenzy around Folau is a construct designed to sell newspapers and encourage online clicks. Is it any wonder people in this region do not have time for it?
Rugby League – quite rightly – is proud of its inclusivity and diversity. But you cannot be selectively inclusive. Showing all the inclusivity of a backstreet Bradford bouncer, some Super League club chairmen want Folau barred sine die.
The player himself is between a rock and a hard place. He cannot take down his Instagram post because it has had mass support from Oceania (ironically, the name of Orwell’s totalitarian superstate). Crowdfunding for his legal fees to challenge Australian rugby union quickly rose to many millions and if he backtracked now he would be letting those people down.
So he can’t go forward or back. But he can be a centre for Catalans Dragons. So why not let him play?
If he’s successful he may be selected for Tonga in next year’s Rugby League World Cup. Homosexuality is illegal in Tonga, and that is another inclusivity item on the agenda for the game’s chiefs.
Many nations in Oceania have similar religious and political views to Tonga. It’s not easy being gay in Fiji, Samoa or Papua New Guinea, all of whom will be represented in the Rugby League World Cup 2021.
Pride days are planned for Wakefield and Wigan but there will be precious few flamingos or unicorns among home supporters in Perpignan.
The early title for 1984 was The Last Man In Europe and the novel is about a super-state suppressing freedom of expression.
The attempt to exclude Folau from Rugby League is as Orwellian as it gets. Shall we stick him in Room 101 for his thoughtcrimes?
Non, merci, let’s hope we’ve seen the last ban in Europe. Show mercy, let him play.
Read Steve Brady’s report on Folau’s home debut for the Catalans Dragons in Monday’s edition of League Express.