Eddie Jones recently said the Australia rugby team is in need of a “generational change in culture”. Israel Folau’s shocking and unprompted homophobic rant this week suggests they need a change in civilisation.
What on earth was Folau thinking when he tweeted “hell awaits” gay people? In one fell swoop this prehistoric plonker took rugby back to the dark ages with his extreme, hate-filled views.
Folau has been hammered for his unmitigated bigotry and we await the moment his multi-million-dollar contract is terminated by Rugby Australia. Once again, the 30-year-old has embarrassed himself, his family, the Christian religion he claims to follow (but in fact spectacularly misunderstands), his teammates and his sport.
Enough people, including both Australia and New Zealand prime ministers, have condemned Folau and the misguided fools – among them Ireland centre Bundee Aki and Wallaby teammates Samu Kerevi and Allan Alaalatoa – who liked his tweet to demand further vitriol. England’s Billy Vunipola went one further and issued a passionate defence of Folau that has landed himself in hot water with the Rugby Football Union and his club Saracens.
Former Australia teammate Drew Mitchell summed it up best when he said: “He's (Folau) put himself before the game, he's put himself before his team-mates and I think he's isolated himself to the point where there's only one decision for Rugby Australia, where he has to go.”
So where does Folau’s inevitable sacking leave Australian rugby and, in the short term, the Wallabies?
The short answer is in a total mess.
The team which toured Europe last November relied heavily on Folau’s power, pace and unequalled ability under the high ball to get them out of trouble. On occasion it worked, more often it didn’t. Even with Folau in it there was a strong case to make for Michael Cheika’s side being the worst Wallaby outfit ever to set foot on these shores.
Without the 73 times capped full-back, which they will surely be for the World Cup and possibly beyond, what hope have they of competing with the best teams in the world?
It went beneath the radar in February when Cheika – whose team lost nine out of 13 Tests last year including a home series to Ireland – did what most desperate coaches do and sacked a deputy.
Seven months out from the World Cup, popular attack coach Stephen Larkham carried the can for Cheika’s short-comings.
“Ultimately, Michael is responsible for the performance of the team,” Larkham said. “We have differences in attacking strategy and overall game philosophy.
“We couldn't agree on these key points and it is in the best interest of the team that they receive clear and consistent messages from their coaches.”
It remains to be seen who will replace Larkham but his departure screams desperation and is reminiscent of Alex King being given the heave ho at Northampton Saints by director of rugby Jim Mallinder in 2016. Mallinder followed King out of the door a year later. Cheika’s time looks numbered too.
The Wallabies currently lie seventh in the world rankings. It’s an all-time low. With no attack coach in place and their only truly world-class three-quarter certain to be axed in the absence of “mitigating circumstances”, the Wallabies have never been worse prepared to mount a World Cup challenge. Wales, who are among their pool opponents, should have them on toast.
Scott Johnson, the former Wales skills coach and Scotland director of rugby, took over a new role as director of rugby at Rugby Australia (RA) a fortnight ago and his first day in office saw the country’s flagship Super Rugby team the Waratahs humbled by the soon-to-be liquidised Japanese outfit the Sunwolves.
Around the same time Will Skelton, by a distance Australia’s best lock forward, was going about his business in typically muscular and confrontational fashion for defending Gallagher Premiership champions, Saracens.
Skelton, 26, recently signed a two-year deal with the north London club and cannot be selected for the Wallabies under RA’s 60-cap rule. Former Wallaby captain James Horwill has called on the governing body to use “creative thinking” to entice Skelton back but that ship appears to have sailed.
Like the RFU, RA has been forced to slash spending in recent times after losing more than £2m in 2017, which chairman Cameron Clyne described as “an incredibly difficult year”, and 2018 was hardly any better on or off the field, with Super Rugby franchise Western Force culled and the Wallabies in freefall.
RA did turn a slight profit last year but expect an operating loss in 2019 with broadcast revenues down and crowds for Test rugby dwindling. The World Cup in Japan will further reduce income.
“To achieve our ambitions for the game we need winning teams that can galvanise support from millions of Australians and inspire generations of future players,” Clyne said last week before Folau’s latest blunder.
“When this happens, the financial benefits follow, which means there is more money available to invest across the game.”
That may take some time.
Folau met with RA representatives on Friday in Sydney when he is understood to have refused to back down or change his stance. More fool him.
RA have only one option and that’s to sack him.
If only the answer to all Australia’s rugby union problems were as simple as Israel Folau.
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