SYDNEY (Reuters) - Israel Folau’s use of social media has not only once again put his rugby union career in jeopardy but also given Wallabies coach Michael Cheika another headache as the Rugby World Cup approaches.
Folau, a fundamentalist Christian, posted a meme on Instagram on Wednesday that said gay people and others he perceived to be “living in sin” would be condemned to “hell” if they failed to “repent”.
It was denounced as “unacceptable” by both Rugby Australia and his state team the New South Wales Waratahs and has been referred him to their integrity unit.
It is the second time in 12 months that Folau has created controversy for Rugby Australia by using social media to express his personal beliefs.
Last April he made similar comments, which caused extreme discomfort at Rugby Australia as they conducted negotiations with him over a new contract while also dealing with key sponsors threatening to withdraw their backing.
Folau, Australia’s best known player, escaped sanctions but was reminded by RA chief executive Raelene Castle of his responsibilities on social media and in February signed a contract extension until 2022.
His latest comments, however, have drawn calls for his contract to be torn up five months out from the World Cup.
“Israel Folau has to go, and will go ... Rugby Australia simply has no choice,” Wallabies lock turned progressive media commentator Peter Fitzsimons wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“They cannot go through one more time the agony of last year when Folau’s social media comments trumpeting that gays would go to hell, saw rugby lose sponsors, fans, and support.
“Then it took three weeks for Folau to pull his head in, and it seemed like he got it: that you couldn’t be a standard bearer for the inclusive game of rugby and put out bigoted nastiness like that.
“This time, it won’t take three weeks. Rugby must surely move quickly, or be made to look ridiculous.”
Any such move, however, would throw Cheika’s World Cup plans into disarray with the former rugby league international one of the few world class players available to him.
The 1.94m tall Folau, who also played two seasons of top-level Australia Rules football, is one of the best players in the world under the high ball, a tactic that is likely to be used extensively in Japan.
An elusive and dangerous runner, Folau only last weekend became the highest try-scorer in Super Rugby when he crossed for his 60th try against the Auckland Blues.
After winning just four of 13 tests last season, the Wallabies are already under pressure to at least repeat their exploits from the 2015 World Cup, when Cheika led them to the final against New Zealand.
Despite efforts to develop depth, Cheika also only has one other player truly comfortable at fullback — Dane Haylett-Petty — to call on if Folau is fired or he walks away, something he said he was willing to do last year.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney