Catalans Dragons chairman defends controversial Israel Folau signing
Catalans Dragons chairman Bernard Guasch has hailed the controversial signing of Israel Folau as a major “coup” for rugby league and believes the Australian can become a role model for youngsters in the game.
The French Super League club have been widely criticised following Tuesday’s announcement that they had signed the dual-code international, who was sacked by Rugby Australia last May for homophobic social media posts.
Guasch told local newspaper L’Independente: “When the moods of each other (side) have subsided, we will judge that this player is perhaps the biggest coup in the history of this sport and of (the club) in France.
“We will then savour the exemplary player he is. I know he will delight the Catalan public.
“We do not share or tolerate his opinions and we are totally committed to making our club and our sport open and welcoming to everyone.
“We think that these kind of remarks should not be expressed publicly, in particular by an athlete of high level.
“Leaving aside what he said recently, he can become a real example for young people, someone who trains hard and has an impeccable lifestyle and thoroughness. He is a hard worker.”
Catalans ignored the warnings of both the Rugby Football League and Super League with their signing of the 30-year-old Folau on a one-year contract.
Guasch’s comments came after Keegan Hirst, the only openly gay rugby league professional, called Folau’s signing a “slap in the face” for the sport’s bid for inclusivity.
“It is really disappointing and very frustrating,” Hirst told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“Rugby league champions itself on being tolerant, inclusive and diverse and people work really hard promoting those values and this signing and the lack of being able to stop it by the RFL and Super League is a slap in the face to all those people’s hard work.
“Anyone who has a moral compass or values, this is alienating and undermining those people.”
Folau, who said “hell awaits” gay people in a social media post, has promised not to repeat his comments during his time with the Dragons but Hirst, who came out in 2017, is disappointed that he has not shown any remorse.
“Everyone deserves a second chance but to get a second chance I think you have to be sorry for the mistake you made and show some remorse and want to better yourself and move on – that’s not the case,” he said.
“That’s not the case: all his anti-gay sentiment has not been taken down, he is not sorry about it.
“It is not a case of changing his belief, everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but to use those beliefs to justify any type of prejudice is not OK.
“When freedom of speech is incendiary or inflammatory, it needs to be challenged.
“Israel Folau has mentioned this repeated times. He is entitled to his beliefs – he is not going to change them because if he was he would have done it when they were tearing up his multi-million dollar Australian rugby union contract and he hasn’t, so he’s not going to.”
Former Wales international Gareth Thomas, who is gay and also a former dual-code international, is equally upset by the Folau signing and says he will not watch the player.
“So Folau has joined the @SuperLeague. Really upset by this as the game, players, and fans were so good to me,” tweeted Thomas, who had an 18-month stint in rugby league playing for Crusaders and Wales in 2010 and 2011 after the end of his rugby union career.
“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.”
Hirst also revealed Dragons coach Steve McNamara tipped him off in advance about the 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, who played in Super League for Wakefield and is now with Championship club Halifax, told BBC Breakfast.
“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.”
Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone has condemned the signing and Wigan have declared their home game against the Catalans in March a ‘Pride Day’ in response.
Folau could make his first appearance for the Dragons in round two of Super League on Sunday week at Wakefield, who plan to follow Wigan’s lead by reaching out to the LGBT groups.