SYDNEY – Israel Folau’s high-stakes code of conduct hearing was Sunday extended to a third day after a weekend stalemate amid reports the star fullback rejected a lucrative settlement to end his row with Rugby Australia over homophobic comments.
The tribunal was initially scheduled for just Saturday, but stretched into a second day and will now resume on Tuesday after hours of legal jousting seemingly failed to find a resolution.
Rugby Australia said on Saturday that no further witnesses were expected to be called after Folau, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, and the governing body’s chief Raelene Castle all gave evidence.
But Castle was questioned again on Sunday, along with NSW Rugby chief Andrew Hore, Rugby Australia said.
It came as Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph reported that a Aus$1 million (US$700,000) offer was made to Folau last week in a bid to avoid the tribunal, which experts have warned could lead to appeals and potentially a long and costly court battle.
But the devoutly religious player instead opted to fight a decision by the governing body to terminate his multi-year, multi-million-dollar deal after he posted on social media that “hell awaits” gay people, following a similar tirade last year.
The offer equated to just one year of his four-year contract.
The three-member panel, chaired by employment law expert John West, will decide what punishment, if any, is appropriate – ranging from a fine to a suspension, or the sack.
Folau was expected to argue that Rugby Australia did not include a social media clause in the contract he signed this year and his posts were merely quoting the Bible.
The governing body would reportedly counter that even if there was no clause, he seriously breached its broader code of conduct and inclusion policy.
Plenty is at stake – Folau faces an end to his glittering career while the hearing could leave Rugby Australia with a major financial headache if forced to pay out his Aus$4 million contract.
Last month it reported a profit of Aus$5.2 million in 2018 after axing Super Rugby side Western Force.
But it also warned of a loss in 2019, a scenario that often plays out in a World Cup year when there are fewer home Tests.
The Telegraph put the shortfall from hosting just three Tests at Aus$8 million, and if a Folau payout is added, it would leave Rugby Australia in a precarious position.
The controversy has overshadowed Australia’s World Cup preparations, with Cheika vowing not to pick Folau again after his “disrespectful” comments.
Others in the Wallabies camp have also criticised him but some, particularly from Pacific Islands backgrounds, have reportedly been angered because they feel their religion is under attack.
Meanwhile, Australia’s first openly gay rugby player Ian Roberts sent an emotional message to Folau about the harm his social media posts could cause.
Roberts, who in 1995 became the first elite Australian male player to come out, said he had some sympathy for Folau, but “there are consequences to your actions”.
“There are literally (gay) kids in the suburbs killing themselves,” he told Channel Nine.
“I say that with the greatest sense of respect, and I’m not implying that Israel’s responsible solely for that, please don’t take it that way.
“But it’s these types of comments and these off-the-cuff remarks, when you have young people and vulnerable people, kids in the suburbs, who are dealing with their sexuality, confused, not knowing how to deal with it ... these type of remarks can and do push people over the edge.”AFP