Rugby’s olive branch to save World Cup hopes
RUGBY Australia's new director of rugby has moved to ease tension among the Polynesian playing ranks amid concerns the Israel Folau saga could lead to a Wallabies division in an all-important World Cup year.
As Folau awaits his fate after being found guilty of a "high-level" breach of his contract for taking to Instagram to promote his religious beliefs, it's been reported the dual international has contacted Pacific Island players at Australia's four Super Rugby franchises, hoping they will stand in solidarity with him for expressing his Christianity.
Scott Johnson, barely a month into his new role, accepts it's his brief to manage the diverse feelings of Australia's playing group.
But he doesn't foresee any split, despite 2018 Super Rugby rookie of the year Taniela Tupou, who idolises Folau and shares a Tongan heritage with his Wallabies teammate, posting his anger and hurt on Facebook.
"Seriously ... Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs," Tupou posted.
Johnson said Tupou, and all players, were entitled to their opinion.
"I've spoken to a few of them (Polynesian players) to make sure, first and foremost, that they're okay because as I keep saying we're in a people's business and you've got to get to know people," he said.
"It's important and we're an inclusive game and they're a big part of our culture and our rugby culture, and we don't want to make it divisive.
"But what I've come across is that we're respectful both ways, and they're paid to play rugby and I think they understand that."
What frustrates Johnson most is that the fallout from the Folau firestorm has taken the focus off rugby and what's happening on the field.
The Junior Wallabies' incredible 24-0 win over New Zealand last week and the improved showing of Australia's Super Rugby teams against Kiwi and South African counterparts have barely rated a mention.
"That's the disappointing thing," Johnson said.
"Last week probably epitomised it for me, where we had such a successful under-20s campaign in defeating New Zealand for the first time in such a long period, the Brumbies had a good come-from-behind win and rugby's not spoken about.
"That's the most frustrating thing and everything appears to be negative or a slant by an individual or a comment about the individual."
An independent three-person panel is expected to announce Folau's sanction this week after deciding after 22 hours at a code of conduct hearing that the superstar fullback's inflammatory posts about gays and other "sinners" left him open to having his four-year, $4 million contract terminated.