Dear Rugby Australia
I see a window of hope for our great game. It will take some humble pie. A decision or two will need to be reversed. But you have an opportunity to make rugby great again.
I love rugby. I love the Wallabies. I’ve held the Bledisloe Cup in my hands. I love the Brumbies. I’ve drunk from the 2004 Super 12 trophy. I love local rugby, standing in the driving rain, the sleet, the mud, and the heat, watching my boys compete with all their hearts. I’ve cheered Aussie rugby from my lounge room, the stands, the sidelines, the change room, in Australia and overseas. I’ve supported rugby and rugby has been my reward.
That is why, Rugby Australia, you are breaking my heart. I listen to so many who say they’ve had enough. They don’t care anymore. The politics, the ignorance, the mismanagement, the bullying, the elitism—they’ve had enough. And what can I say? They’ve got a point. But I won’t give up. In fact, I see a window of hope.
Rugby Australia, you have made a mess of things, but there is still hope. You just need to own up to a few things. It has been reported today that Israel Folau wants to play rugby for Australia again, and he is willing to allow vetting of his social media posts. He is also willing to seek expert guidance on using social media to express his Christian views. Rugby Australia, there is your window. Don’t miss it. Offer an olive branch now. Do it now before rugby league gets the jump. Do it now before he signs overseas. Do it now before our best player misses the World Cup. Do it now because you can and it is the right thing to do.
Be honest. You have made things far worse than they needed to be. You have made a mountain out of a molehill. Israel was writing to those who chose to follow him on social media. They chose. They knew Izzy. They knew what he believes. It’s never been a secret. And they chose to follow him anyway. What is more, you know it wasn’t hate speech. It was a warning based on what he believes is the truth and it was motivated by love. You’ve seen enough hate speech to know the difference.
Rugby Australia, you didn’t handle things well. For years you’ve been saying we need to respect our players. All of them. Together with the Rugby Union Players Association, you have provided chaplains, cultural liaison workers, welfare workers and more. Orientation camps for players have included important pieces on the cultural, family, and religious convictions of our Pacific Islanders especially. Now you heavy-handedly ignore them. Wouldn’t it have been wiser to consult with cultural and religious experts, to seek to gain insight and understanding, to work toward future agreement, to learn from the misunderstanding to create a better outcome for all? But you rushed in like a bully in a china shop.
When Andy Friend was the coach of the Brumbies, he once surveyed all his players to discover the most influential people in their lives. A significant number of the players put Jesus Christ, or the Lord, or God as number one. I suspect this result would have been repeated in many of the teams across Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Most of the players who gave these responses were Polynesian. So, what did Andy do? He saw an opportunity to respect his players and further their development. He asked the chaplain to work with him to understand his players better, and to determine how he could support them in their beliefs. He explored how to enable players to live out their beliefs when at home and when on tour. We could do with a lot more of this kind of emotional intelligence among the leaders in our game.
Rugby Australia, you are alienating so much of your player base and your supporter base. Where would we be without our Polynesian brothers and sisters? Where would we be without our Catholic, Anglican, and other church school teams? If you are going to lead rugby into the future in Australia, then you need to get back in touch, and there is still time. Please, do it now.
You have painted Izzy into a corner. You demanded that he take down a post. That seems reasonable, but you haven’t attempted to walk in his shoes. Why would he be open to having all future posts vetted, but not take down an existing one? Have you thought about that? Have you asked him? Could it be that he sees you asking him to deny his beliefs? Please, lighten up a bit. The nature of social media posts is they are quickly buried and forgotten.
Look to the future, not to the past. Take the opportunity to forge a new future for religious and cultural liaison in rugby. Lead well. Show some grace. Be the sport that unites rather than divides.
Rugby Australia, I plead with you. Do the right thing. Give Israel Folau another chance. Take this window of opportunity to reconnect with Israel and work together for the future of our sport. I, for one, will respect you deeply if you do.
National Director, FIEC
Salt Community Church Pastor, Bonny Hills, NSW
Brumbies Chaplain 2003-2017