The Catalan Dragons swallowed a double-edged sword when they signed controversial rugby star Israel Folau to a contract under the sleeping eyes of Super League officials.
When unapologetic former Rugby Football League star Israel Folau – most famous now for doubling down on homophobic remarks and refusing to remove them from his social media – made his debut for Catalan on February 15, the eyes of the rugby world fell squarely on him. It was icy and expected glare that will likely remain fixed on Folau for as long as he plays in Super League.
Amid protests and concerns from league officials and fans alike the Dragons – by bringing on Folau just months after he was banned for life from the RFL for his posts – showed little regard for the league as a whole or the fellow ownership groups that make up the 12-team outfit. The contract was signed months after Falou was banned for life from the RFL and the Dragons pushed every conceivable moral standard to the side to land the lethal difference-maker.
The competitive dividends have been immediate. Folau scored a try in his first home game on his first possession vs. the Castleford Tigers, a 36-18 victory in front of 9,000 packed into Perpignan Stadium. His second game included a massive steal in the late moments vs. Hull FC that paved the way for a comeback win. Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the league he was arguably its best player.
Still, before Catalan’s first game after the signing the Wigan Warriors promptly declared a Pride Day theme for the Dragons’ upcoming March 22 visit as an affront to Folau’s spouted beliefs. Trinity Wakefield has a standing invitation to all LGTBQ groups when the Dragons visit. Castleford fans at the Perpignan reported having pride flags confiscated and threatened with expulsion, pushing the issue of censorship in rugby into the spotlight as well. Hull KR owner Neil Hudgell threatened legal action if Folau’s presence impacts revenue, a threat co-signed by several other owners. Meanwhile, in France Folau is cheered as though he has no history at all, further muddying the divide in Super league towards his stance on sexuality – a mess the RFL looked to eliminate when they cancelled his $4M contract last May. Catalan’s acquisition of Folau undid much of the optics in that move.
With sports leagues across the planet promoting acceptance and inclusiveness as a way of business this is a very bad look. In the end it is Super League – not the Catalan Dragons – who have the most to lose here. For a league looking at global expansion, a new television deal and more inclusion the Folau signing is a hard knock, especially when combined with the belief that they were powerless to stop it. Super League tried to spin the perception with a publicized emergency board meeting following Folau’s signing.
“The Super League Board accepts the legalities around the RFL’s decision to register Israel Folau,” read a statement following the proceeding. “The Board has voted unanimously to put in place measures that ensure the Super League has greater authority to stop controversial signings such as this in the future.”
Folau’s star may have been rusted by the damp experience of his RFL ouster but it still shines. His feats on the field remain marvellous and without even a handful of games into his first Catalans season experts are already putting him on a short-list for the Man of Steel award. The athletic praise is piling up just as fast as the controversy and in many ways it’s a race to the finish. Can his game outrun his past? As long as Folau is employed by a Super league team that question will exist, and rightfully so. No matter what he does on the field it will be hard to fully escape the stink he has put on his reputation without walking back some of his past statements.
That remains unlikely.
Folau has continued his career without having to apologize or backtrack his words. He has lost big money contracts and sponsorships and has held fast while financial opportunities dried up around him. The Dragons know this and secretly view Folau as a low-risk, high-reward weapon. They’ve warned him to keep quiet on the stuff that got him burned in the RFL. His contract essentially came with a gag order, meaning Folau isn’t allowed to repeat or post his previous statements or he risks being kicked out of the sport for good. His silence won’t make them go away and it’s unlikely his play will either. It certainly wasn’t enough to save his RFL career but if the Dragons can make noise and contend in Super League this year with a big hand from Folau the club appears ready to take the hits that will continue to come their way.
Super League will pay the price for however this saga ends but before then they must decide what type of league they want to be. With Folau now firmly in the fold there are many who believe they already have.