MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The trial of Israel Folau is threatening to drive a wedge through the Australia rugby squad in a World Cup year, with prop Taniela Tupou saying all Pacific Islanders “might as well” be sacked for their Christian beliefs.
Folau, a Fundamentalist Christian, faces a code of conduct hearing in Sydney on Saturday for a social media post that said hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters”.
The case is seen as a formality, with Rugby Australia and the New South Wales Waratahs already publicly committed to terminating the lucrative contract of their best-known player.
The saga could, however, prove divisive in a squad that contains at least one high profile social progressive in David Pocock but also a heavy representation of players who, like Folau, are devout Christians with Pacific islands heritage.
Tongan-born Tupou made clear his position when he took to Facebook late on Tuesday in response to a report that his Fiji-born Wallabies team mate Samu Kerevi had apologised on Instagram after posting about his “love” for Jesus before Easter.
“Seriously? Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs?,” wrote the 11-cap forward.
“I will never apologise for my faith and what I believe in, religion had nothing to do with rugby anyways?”
RA was unable to provide immediate comment on Tupou’s Facebook post.
The governing body has also declined to comment on Folau’s case since announcing Saturday’s hearing, which was requested by the player after he was served with a breach notice that said he had “disrespected” people on the basis of their sexuality.
RA’s hardline stance has been backed by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and a number of senior players, including captain Michael Hooper.
However, Folau, born to Tongan parents, has had support from Pasifika players who share his religion.
Centre Kerevi and Wallabies prop Allan Allalatoa, whose father Vili played for Samoa, “liked” Folau’s explosive post, while England’s Billy Vunipola was sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union for expressing his support.
Players with Pasifika heritage made up nearly half of Australia’s matchday squad in their last test against England in November so the result of Folau’s code of conduct case could have significant implications for team harmony.
On Tuesday, Kerevi felt moved to clarify his “apology” for his social media post, saying he was not apologising for his faith or in response to the Folau controversy.
“God will always come first in my life and many other professional rugby players,” he said.
“Today I felt things were taken out of context in regards to certain articles. I do not feel obliged to apologise to people because of the situation happening right now with a brother of mine.”
The Folau case has escalated far beyond the rugby pitch, angering Australia’s conservative Christians and prompting a wider debate about freedom of speech, vilification and employers’ rights to control employees away from the work-place.
It has touched the Australian Rules code, where Gary Ablett Jr., a decorated midfielder with the Geelong Cats and a devout Christian, was criticised for “liking” Folau’s post and jeered by fans at a game against the Hawthorn Hawks two weeks ago.
After a discussion with AFL officials, he “unliked” the post, saying he understood how it had “appeared offensive”.
Under pressure from sponsors and LGBTI advocacy groups, RA has little choice but to stay the course on Folau, who was cautioned last year during a similar social media furore after saying gay people would go to hell if they did not repent.
Reprieving Folau would also prove divisive in a team that features players like Pocock, who declined to marry his long-time partner Emma until after Australia legalised same-sex marriage in 2017.
Yet alienating rugby’s Pasifika community could prove equally devastating for a sport battling for relevance in a crowded domestic market and preparing for what looks like an increasingly unlikely bid for a third World Cup triumph.
“Australia won’t have a viable team if all the Islanders leave/are terminated,” said one fan on The Australian newspaper’s website.
“So there would be a C-grade team left, totally uncompetitive, unable to attract sponsors ... and the whole shebang collapses.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney