Israel Folau’s legal team is working feverishly to save his career after the Wallabies superstar was found guilty of committing a “high level” breach of his contract.
Folau’s future in Australian rugby is looking increasingly grim after an independent panel retired to consider a sanction following an intense three-day code of contract hearing in Sydney.
The hearing, which started on 4 May, handed down its findings on Tuesday night after more than 15 hours of legal arguments.
“The panel has today provided a judgement that Israel Folau committed a high-level breach of the Professional Players’ Code of Conduct with his social media posts on April 10, 2019,” the three-person panel announced in a statement.
“The panel will now take further written submissions from the parties to consider the matter of sanction.”
The panel comprises of chair John West QC, Rugby Australia representative Kate Eastman SC and the RUPA-appointed John Boultbee.
RA boss Raelene Castle issued Folau with a breach notice last month following his controversial social media posts about homosexuals and other sinners and threatened to tear up his four-year, $4 million contract.
The 30-year-old devout Christian took to Instagram to proclaim “hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”.
While Folau may yet be spared the sack, termination of his contract is now a possibility.
The panel will consider written submissions from both Folau and RA before a sanction is handed down – with no time frame on any decision provided.
It is likely to be several more days before Folau learns his fate – and even then the three-times John Eales Medallist is expected to appeal and one of the most divisive cases in Australian sports history will wind up in the courts.
Folau and his legal team will plead for leniency on the issue, saying while it is a high-level offence, he should be fined and suspended instead of having his contract torn up.
RA will argue they have no option but to go through with the sacking of Folau, given his vilification of the gay community – among other alleged “sinners” in controversial social media posts – and the damage he has caused the game.
Had the panel deemed Folau’s breach of RA’s players’ code of conduct anything less than “high level”, the governing body would not have had the power to boot the devout Christian out of the game.
The best punishment Folau can now hope for is a suspension and/or a fine.
Should he be sacked, Folau – Super Rugby’s all-time leading try-scorer and a 73-Test stalwart for the Wallabies – would be the first Australian athlete dismissed for expressing fundamental religious beliefs.
The superstar fullback, who reportedly rejected a $1 million offer to walk away from Australian rugby last week, joined Castle and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika in providing evidence on Saturday.
Folau’s solicitor Ramy Quatami and barrister Adam Casselden have argued that Folau’s Instagram post claiming hell awaits homosexuals and other sinners unless they repent and turn to Jesus was merely a Bible passage and not his direct words.
They also put forward the fact that RA didn’t include a specific social media clause when Folau signed a new contract in February.
But after being formally warned last year when he posted similar passages claiming gays were destined for hell, RA’s legal unit believes the 30-year-old has breached both the player code of conduct and social media policies.
Sunday’s developments came after former rugby league international Ian Roberts, that code’s first player to come out, aired his grave concerns about how Folau’s posts could impact on young homosexuals.
“These types of remarks can and do push people over the edge. There can’t be any tolerance of bigotry,” Roberts told Channel Nine’s Sports Sunday program.
“I do feel sorry for Israel but there are consequences to your actions.
“I don’t say this lightly and what I’m about to say, the language I use, is hard and it’s for a point, it’s to get that message across – there are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves.
“I say that with the greatest sense of respect and I’m not implying that Israel is responsible solely for that – please don’t take it that way – but it’s these types of comments and these types of off-the-cuff remarks when you have young people and vulnerable people who are dealing with their sexuality, confused, not knowing how to deal with it.”
While Cheika last month said he would find it “difficult” to pick Folau for Australia again and senior teammates including Test captain Michael Hooper condemned him for his provocative stance, Folau has not been without support.
“Seriously … Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs,” Folau’s Wallabies teammate Taniela Toupou posted on Facebook last Tuesday.
If he does have his contract terminated, Folau would be the first professional athlete in Australian sport wiped out for expressing their religious beliefs.