SYDNEY – Israel Folau’s stunning fall from grace has overshadowed one of the world’s great sporting careers, spanning Aussie Rules, rugby league and rugby union.
AFP Sport looks at five key stages in his life after he was sacked on Friday for being found guilty of a “high-level” breach of rugby’s code of conduct.
Folau, who grew up in a rough Sydney neighbourhood, made his National Rugby League entrance as a teenager for Melbourne Storm in 2007, grabbing the winning try on his debut to telegraph his arrival.
His rise was meteoric, with Folau breaking the NRL’s record for most tries in a debut season and winning rookie of the year. He also became the youngest league player, at the time, to represent Australia aged just 18 years and 194 days.
Folau played 90 games in the sport with the Storm and Brisbane Broncos between 2007-10, reportedly earning a reputation as a party boy. But he yearned for a return to Sydney and a new challenge.
‘What’s mine is yours’
Folau switched to Australian Rules in 2011 with the Greater Western Sydney Giants, partly to please his father who was keen for him to give it a crack, but also because it paid more.
He had previously stated that in Polynesian culture – he has Tongan heritage – the three most important things were “family, faith and finances”.
A guiding principle was also “what’s mine is yours”, and playing Aussie Rules allowed him to earn big bucks with which to help his family.
But while Folau worked hard to adapt, he found it difficult and played just 13 games, kicking only two goals. Some viewed his signing as a marketing gimmick, and the criticism hurt. He called it day two years into his four-year deal.
He left AFL richer, and keen for a return to rugby union. The sport was always his first love and he was snapped up by then NSW Waratahs coach Michael Cheika – now the Wallabies boss – for his first foray into the professional 15-a-side game.
The versatile Folau quickly resumed his record-setting exploits, becoming the first player to top the try-scoring charts in both an NRL and Super Rugby season while helping pilot the Waratahs to a maiden premiership in 2014.
He headed the list again in 2016, before last month becoming Super Rugby’s all-time leading try-scorer with 60. En route, he has been voted Australian rugby player-of-the-year three times.
Folau made his Test debut in 2013 against the British and Irish Lions, becoming one of a select few dual internationals. He went on to play for the Wallabies 73 times and is his country’s equal-third-highest try-scorer of all time.
While Folau’s playing legacy can’t be questioned, religion has always been a central part of his life and his views have become more fundamentalist. He grew up as a Mormon, but became an active member of an Assemblies of God fellowship in 2011.
His Twitter profile describes him as “Living for Jesus Christ #TeamJesus”, and those staunch views first caused trouble in April last year.
He posted that gay people were destined for hell and again courted controversy by tweeting a link to a video opposing same-sex marriage by late American evangelist David Wilkerson.
The backlash was fierce, with ex-Wallaby Clyde Rathbone saying “Australia’s best rugby player is a religious lunatic bent on self-immolation”.
Folau was reprimanded by his employer, Rugby Australia, but escaped any sanction. Considered Australia’s most marketable player, the governing body was treading a delicate line between freedom of speech and its policy of inclusiveness.
Fall from grace
While Folau vowed never to back away from his religious beliefs, he appeared to have heeded Rugby Australia’s warning to keep his anti-gay views to himself before spectacularly reigniting the controversy just months after signing a lucrative new multi-season contract.
He posted an Instagram banner in April that read: “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.”
With key Wallabies sponsor Qantas livid and criticism rapidly building, Rugby Australia sensationally informed one of the nation’s greatest-ever sportsman that it planned to sack him.
Rugby league also turned its back, leaving the 30-year-old’s storied rags-to-riches career in tatters.
He took the matter to a tribunal, which on Tuesday agreed that his actions were a “high-level” breach of the sport’s code of conduct.
On Friday, the three-person panel decided it warranted the termination of his lucrative AU$4 million four-year contract.