Tonga keen to offer international lifeline to Israel Folau

Former Australia full-back Israel Folau could make an international comeback for Tonga in time for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty
Former Australia full-back Israel Folau could make an international comeback for Tonga in time for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty
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Controversial Wallaby full-back Israel Folau has been offered a route back to international rugby with Tonga, due to a loophole in world rugby’s international eligibility rule.

Rugby league convert Folau currently finds himself in the wilderness as his contracts with both Rugby Australia and his Super Rugby club side the New South Wales Waratahs were terminated after he posted homophobic comments on social media in April.

Folau had said “Hell awaits gay people” and, after being warned for a similar previous transgression, was sacked by Australian rugby union’s governing body. The 30-year-old has since instigated legal action against them and is understood to be demanding damages in the region of $(AU)10million [£5.45m].

There is, however, an international lifeline for Folau, should he wish to choose it, being offered by Tonga coach and 60-times capped former Wallaby Toutai Kefu.

Although Folau has represented Australia, there is a loophole that would allow him to play for Tonga. Folau would have to sit out international rugby for three years before taking part in an Olympic sevens qualifying tournament, which in turn would allow him to compete in the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Kefu said: “We’d love to have him… the next World Cup he’d be available for us hopefully.

“It’s a long time away, so we’ll let the dust settle a bit after his most recent issues. We don’t even know if he’s going to play again. He hasn’t indicated where he is going, so we’ll wait until the dust settles and then look at those options.

“He’d have to sit out three years and then even after that we’d have to re-qualify him through a sevens Olympic qualifying tournament.”

A factor behind any potential decision is that Folau’s brother, John, is set to be named in Tonga’s World Cup squad for the tournament in Japan later this year over the next few days.

World Rugby’s international eligibility rules have been a matter of debate for many years, with Scotland taking advantage of the three-year residency rule to cap a number of players with no blood link to the country. That has since been extended to five years but players signed in advance of that new ruling, such as Edinburgh’s South African duo of stand-off Jaco van der Walt and wing Duhan van der Merwe are eligible for Scotland selection next year, while loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman must wait until 2023.

Hooker John Allan won nine Scotland caps between 1990 and 1991 before returning to the land of his birth and representing the Springboks 13 times between 1993 and 1996.

Folau has played 73 Tests for the Wallabies, making his international union bow in the 2013 series against the British and Irish Lions and has faced Scotland on three occasions. Last month an independent panel upheld Rugby Australia’s ruling that Folau had committed a “high level” breach to his contract after taking to Instagram to proclaim hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators” unless they repent and turn to Jesus.