Sacked Folau only has himself to blame

Israel Folau's exit from rugby is a tragedy but it is not one of rugby's making. Folau has been on a collision course with his teammates and the game's administrators for some time.

His religious convictions have grown deeper and more extreme in the past two years and he is no longer willing to follow anyone's direction but his God's.

Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle (right) announces the Folau decision to the media on Friday. Picture: AAP

Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle (right) announces the Folau decision to the media on Friday. Picture: AAP

That fundamental shift, which culminated in his April 10 posts about sinners, homosexuals and Hell, has made his hitherto richly productive partnership with the game untenable.

An independent panel of three impeccably qualified experts in workplace law, discrimination and elite sport recognised that on Friday with their unanimous verdict that Folau's contract could be torn up.

Now that he is mulling an appeal, or a circuitous route through the courts that poses an untold financial and reputational cost to both him and Australian rugby, that is also not of rugby's making.

Folau said last year he would walk away from the game if he or anyone else thought his actions were "hurting Rugby Australia, its sponsors and the Australian rugby community to such a degree that things couldn't be worked through".

What has changed his mind?

This is the situation the board and executive of RA wanted to avoid 12 months ago. Folau's first anti-gay comments went unpunished in large part because chairman Cameron Clyne and chief executive Raelene Castle knew there were forces priming for a fight on freedom of speech.

Clyne and Castle, with the help of NSW boss Andrew Hore, and Folau's coaches Michael Cheika and Daryl Gibson, pushed for understanding, consensus and conciliation, based on a history of mutually-assured success and Folau's incredible contribution to the Wallabies and Waratahs. They thought they had it.

Then Folau made a second round of offensive posts, including a hazardous warning sign including "homosexuals" in a list of sinners for whom Hell awaited.

Israel Folau's instagram post

Israel Folau's instagram post

As Castle said in her reaction to the findings of John West QC, Kate Eastman SC and John Boultbee AM, Folau knew from last year's controversy that his words would hurt people and bring more scrutiny, pressure and criticism to bear on not only the suits in the offices of RA and NSW Rugby, but on the shoulders of his teammates.

These were men who had faced the blowtorch of a media storm once before. He decided to put them through it again, while he hid from scrutiny and refused to explain his actions. Push aside the hundreds of thousands of words casting Folau as a victim of religious persecution. Look at his Instagram and Twitter feeds which, since 2017, have featured fewer and fewer selfies with teammates and more and more memes about God and repentance and the coming of Jesus. This is not a man who has been censored or victimised. Quite the contrary.

Folau appears to have been emboldened by the widespread coverage of and reaction to his reasonable, respectful statement outlining his opposition to same sex marriage ahead of the 2017 plebiscite. After that September 13 Tweet, his language grew more strident, and his imagery more 'fire-and-brimstone' than 'light-and-love'. No one had a problem.

But he has clearly crossed the line twice since then and RA, twice bitten, have taken the only action they felt they could, as a game representing all Australians, with a duty to protect them as well. They wrapped their arms around Folau last year, and he has spurned them.

Castle and her team stumbled along the way, and should not escape scrutiny.

But what comes next is on Folau. He has grown in confidence in who he is and what he stands for, and that appears to have put an unbridgable gap between him and professional rugby in Australia.