By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Israel Folau will make his return to international rugby with Tonga three years after his Wallabies contract was terminated over a controversial social media post.
The 33-year-old outside back was named in Tonga’s squad on Friday for the Pacific Nations Cup tournament in July and a playoff for next year’s World Cup in France.
Folau, an evangelical Christian, had his Australia contract torn up in 2019 after he posted a meme on social media which said “hell” awaits homosexuals and other groups.
The dual code international then sued governing body Rugby Australia for unlawful termination seeking A$14 million ($9.98 million) in damages.
The case was settled out of court, with Rugby Australia and Folau issuing a joint statement and apology in late-2019.
A latecomer to rugby union following a successful career in rugby league and a less impressive stint in Australian Rules football, Folau made his Wallabies debut against the British and Irish Lions in 2013, only months after his first Super Rugby match for the New South Wales Waratahs.
He remains fourth on the Wallabies’ all-time try-scoring list with 37, behind David Campese (64), Chris Latham (40) and Adam Ashley-Cooper (39).
His faith-based views and preaching on social media proved divisive, however, with sponsors putting pressure on Rugby Australia.
Folau drew criticism for expressing his opposition to gay marriage in 2017 after the government called a national plebiscite on legalising same-sex unions in Australia.
He wrote on social media in 2018 that homosexuals would go to hell unless “they repent of their sins and turn to God” but rejected criticism that he was bigoted or homophobic.
Folau’s eventual termination in May 2019 opened a schism in the Wallabies camp, angering team mates who shared his Christian faith and Polynesian heritage.
Rugby Australia’s settlement with Folau cost them a reported A$4 million, contributing to a financial crisis that overwhelmed the governing body when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the following year.
Having become a pariah in Australian sport, Folau returned to rugby league with a French side in 2020.
He tried to revive his career in the sport in Australia but was blocked by local officials before switching back to rugby union last year, taking a contract with Japan’s Shining Arcs.
World Rugby’s decision last year to allow players to switch their international allegiance paved the way for Folau to represent Tonga, coached by former Wallaby Toutai Kefu.
Tonga will meet Pacific Nations Cup hosts Fiji, Samoa and an Australia ‘A’ team at the July 2-16 tournament.
A week later, Tonga face the winner of the Asia Rugby Championship in a one-match playoff to decide who will join South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and a team from the Europe 2 zone in Pool B at the World Cup.
($1 = 1.4025 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)