Super League’s special season submerges under a cloud of disgrace as Israel Folau’s arrival brings shame on Catalans Dragons

Super League’s 25th anniversary should kick-off tonight showing the best of a sport pulling together for two of its fallen heroes – only for an unrepentant Folau to hijack a stage that belongs to a much more deserving import

Jack de Menezes
Thursday 30 January 2020 08:04
Israel Folau: The devil is to blame for transgender children

This was supposed to be a season like no other. This was supposed to be about rugby league coming together for two of its own. This was supposed to be about a superstar signing for the minnow upstarts, one who transcends sport, helping to make their name on the big time.

This was not supposed to be about Israel Folau. But it is, and it’s a disgrace.

Wigan’s season-opener against Warrington Wolves tonight will kick-off under the darkest of shadows, one that haunted rugby union in 2019 and has now spread it toxicity to the 13-man code for 2020. There’s no doubt that once the 25th season of Super League gets underway at the DW Stadium the on-pitch drama will return to centre stage, but this is far from how the Rugby Football League envisioned their quarter-century celebrations getting underway.

When it comes to declarations of playing ‘the greatest game in the world’, rugby league does more than its fair share. Commentators, pundits and players are quick to bellow those six words after every big hit, splintering burst and sudden-death score. Truth be told, the sport packs a punch that makes it fascinating to watch at the worst of times. Yet for the last month, those words have carried more than enough meaning to back it up; for all the right reasons from the very worst of situations.

First came the heartbreaking news of Rob Burrow’s diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease (MND), the debilitating muscle condition that vastly shortens life expectancy and for which there is no cure. The shockwaves sent through the sport pulled it together tighter than ever, and the annual Leeds versus Bradford pre-season fixture became one of the great moments in league history as legends of both clubs donned the shirt one last time. Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s testimonial it was, but the day belonged to one of league’s favourite sons.

League legend Rob Burrow will be among the thoughts of many this season

The match took place on the same day as another tragedy, when Hull Kingston Rovers prop Mose Masoe suffered life-changing spinal injuries that will leave him battling to walk again. For the second time in quick succession, the sport needed to come together to support one of its fallen soldiers – a description that probably applies no better to a sport than rugby league.

Leeds immediately returned the love by pledging to use their encounter against Hull KR – dubbed a ‘Love League’ clash – as a fundraiser for Masoe on what will likely be the most emotional evening of rugby seen in 25 years of the Super League, and what was supposed to be a special year regardless now carries more meaning than ever before, given the battles that lie ahead for Burrow and Masoe.

It was not all doom and gloom though, with the intriguing promotion of Toronto Wolfpack following their romp to the 2019 Championship title boosted emphatically with the signing of Sonny Bill Williams. They don’t come much bigger than Sonny Bill, and after 12 years away from the sport give-or-take a two-year return with the Sydney Roosters, the Kiwi is back in the game where he made his name. The All Blacks have enjoyed the best of Sonny Bill, but there can be no doubt that he saves his best for rugby league.

Even at the ripe age of 34 years old, Williams will put extra bums on seats. He arrives undoubtedly as Super League’s biggest signing, surpassing the ecstasy that came with the acquisitions of Andrew Johns and Trent Barrett. For the first time ever, Super League has an Olympian in its ranks.

Emotion, togetherness, camaraderie, tragedy, drama. They’re all ingredients of what fuels those ‘greatest game in the world’ claims. Yet on Tuesday they all came crumbling down.

Catalans Dragons proved the kid that just couldn’t resist the cookie, only it comes with an unhealthy dose of homophobia and enough baggage to fill the Airbus A380 that will bring Folau to Europe. In one quick, controversial swoop, Catalans went against everything the game has spent so long to build.

Super League did not under any circumstances need this shadow over its opening weekend. The game is already going up against the first round of the Six Nations this weekend with the Super Bowl and a full Premier League card also scheduled, and in a sport forever fighting for column inches and looking to attract fresh eyes, the events of the last 48 hours will be more than enough to turn the casual fan off.

Folau has signed for the Catalans Dragons

It would be fair to argue that Folau’s reputation is far worse in the United Kingdom than it is back home, and that’s taking into consideration the reported A$8m (£4.1m) he took off Rugby Australia after they tore up his contract for the latest in a line of homophobic and hateful comments. Super League and the RFL know this, and the number of clubs who have already spoken out against Folau’s arrival is just a taste of what is to come for the 30-year-old. It takes something special to make Wigan and St Helens unite, but heck, Folau has managed it before he’s even arrived.

But the people who will really be hurt by his presence are the people who Folau objects to the most. Gareth Thomas, the sport’s first openly gay player when he came out ahead of his move to Crusaders in 2010, is a voice worth listening to when it comes to being on the end of homophobic abuse. "All I hope is that as much as Folau wanted his right to speak, then players and fans alike are aloud (sic) their right to respond. I will never watch him,” declared Thomas.

His words pale in comparison to Keegan Hirst’s though. The current Halifax prop became the second player to come out as gay, with the 31-year-old currently the only openly homosexual player in the game. The former Wakefield forward said on the eve of the new season that in his opinion – one shared by many – there is no room in the game for someone seeking a second chance when they have not shown any remorse whatsoever for the errors of their first. Folau’s hateful posts remain active on his social media pages, and just because he cannot preach his homo- and trans-phobic views during his stay with Catalans – or else risk immediate contract termination – the same beliefs reside within him and will almost certainly re-emerge when there is not hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, resting on his every word.

Catalans have stressed they do not condone Folau’s views, but Hirst said it best when he revealed an exchange with the club’s coach Steve McNamara as he phoned him “out of respect” to explain the Folau signing.

“He said he was giving me a call out of respect, but I kind of brushed that to one side, because if that was the case, he wouldn’t have signed him,” Hirst told the BBC. “I told him I felt there was two things going on: either Catalans didn’t care what he said which was worrying, or they did care, but they were willing to put their values to one side for a few extra tries a year and a couple of extra league places.

“Out of seven billion people on the planet, nobody else must have been available for Catalans this season.”

Hirst hit the nail on the head. Catalans have sacrificed not just the dawning Super League season but the very values of the game all for that little something extra every club seeks in the pursuit of greatness. Toronto found it in Sonny Bill, one of the special characters of sport who stands for plenty that is good in the world. Catalans didn’t come up short, they simply allowed themselves to be lowered to a level that you don’t come back from for a long time.

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