“I’m really grateful to Rugby Australia and the Waratahs for all they have done for me,” says Wallaby star Israel Folau. Photo: David Gray/Reuters

MELBOURNE – Australia outside back Israel Folau has extended his Wallabies contract until 2022, in a coup for Michael Cheika’s embattled team.

Despite committing to another four years at Super Rugby club New South Wales Waratahs in October, Folau and governing body Rugby Australia (RA) spent months wrangling over the national component of his extension.

The final delivery of the deal will be a relief to under-pressure Cheika as he battles to make the Wallabies competitive for the World Cup in Japan starting in September, after a dreadful 2018 season of only four wins from 13 Tests.

“I’m really grateful to Rugby Australia and the Waratahs for all they have done for me,” 73-cap Folau said in an RA media release.

“The World Cup is a big target of mine this year, and I believe this Wallabies group can go a long way if we keep on improving.”

A former rugby league international who made a lucrative, if unsuccessful, foray into Australian Rules football for two years, Folau switched to union in 2013 and has enjoyed a stellar career in his third code.

His tally of 37 tries is equal third on the Wallabies’ all-time list, with teammate Adam Ashley-Cooper, behind only Chris Latham (40) and David Campese (64).

He became Australia’s all-time leading try-scorer in the Rugby Championship in 2018, and owns the record for the most tries in a calendar year when he scored 12 in 2017, despite not playing on the season-ending tour of Europe.

Retaining Folau, the country’s most recognisable player, has been a top priority for RA, who have proved powerless to arrest dwindling crowds and a decline in the nation’s competitiveness in Super Rugby.

There was no shortage of interest from rich foreign clubs or from National Rugby League teams hoping to lure him back to the domestic competition where he starred for Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos.

“Israel’s contribution to the Wallabies since making the switch shows why he’s one of the best players in the world,” Wallaby coach Michael Cheika said.

“It is great to see him make a long-term commitment to the Wallabies and Waratahs, and I know that he’s still very keen to become an even better player in that time, as well as achieve success with the Wallabies.”

However, Folau’s contract negotiations were also complicated by his conservative religious views, which sparked outrage when shared on social media.

An evangelist Christian, he made his opposition against same-sex marriage known during a plebiscite on the question in Australia in late 2017.

Same-sex marriage was legalised in December of that year, after the vote returned an overwhelming majority in favour.

Months later, Folau wrote on his Instagram page that homosexuals were condemned to “hell” unless they “repent”, and later posted a link on Twitter to an 11-minute sermon from the late Christian evangelist David Wilkerson.

The sermon included a warning from the American against young people being “seduced” into “tolerance” towards same-sex marriage.

Under pressure from sponsors, Rugby Australia summoned Folau to meet with chief executive Raelene Castle and Waratahs chief Andrew Hore, but the governing body declined to censure him, and issued a statement that they accepted he did not intend to “upset people intentionally”.

Folau later wrote in a column that he had told Castle and Hore that he would walk away from his contract if his views became “untenable” for the game, but denied courting controversy as a negotiating position.

Reuters