A conflicted Waratahs vice-captain Bernard Foley says his friend Israel Folau has "hurt" the Waratahs in the last ten days but is convinced NSW can get a job done against the Rebels on Saturday night without him.
Foley gave his view on the Folau saga as the identities of the three panel members on the Code of Conduct tribunal were announced.
The independent panel will be Kate Eastman SC (RugbyAU appointed), John Boultbee (RUPA appointed) and chair John West QC. The date of the hearing has yet to be confirmed.
West is a prominent Sydney barrister and mediator at Selborne Chambers, and has been involved in numerous high profile corporate disputes for many decades.
Eastman is a also a leading Sydney silk, with an expertise in "employment, discrimination, human rights, professional conduct, international law and public law".
Boultbee is a long-time Australian sporting administrator who was RUPA’s appointee on the 2014 Code of Conduct hearing panel that saw Kurtley Beale avoid getting the axe - as requested by the ARU - over the Di Patston affair.
Ironically, perhaps, Beale will replace Folau in the Waratahs no.15 for their crucial clash with the Rebels on Saturday night at the SCG; a game that will see the Melburnians either extend their seven-point conference lead over NSW or have it reduced to touching distance.
Just as it did last year when Folau first posted anti-gay messages on social media, Foley said this week’s saga has served to again “galvanise” the Waratahs, who have been left under a spotlight and under-manned this week.
Foley said he’d had “very brief” contact with Folau via text and when asked about he felt about his long-time teammate, the no.10 said: “Conflicted, I suppose.”
"He has hurt the team which is not why we play sport. We are a team and we encourage diversity and everything,” Foley continued.
"But I also don’t think Izzy is a bad guy. So there is a lot of conflict there.
"But I don’t agree with what he’s done. It’s a tough situation, so for myself personally it’s a big loss this weekend but we will deal with that. We have trained all week without him and we’re looking forward to going out there and getting the job done.”
Pressed to expand on how Folau had hurt the team, Foley said the focus of success against the Rebels and in Super Rugby had effectively been hijacked.
There has been much speculation about how much support Folau has among his fellow players for his views, particularly among religious Polynesian players.
But the negative impact on a team environment of Folau knowingly dropping such a bomb in the middle of a season can't be underestimated.
"We are here talking about it now. We are not talking about a game … which we should be,” he said.
"Rugby is an inclusive sport. We want to engage all the diversity we have. We want a team sport that encourages diversity, to be inclusive of all backgrounds and all religions and all faiths.
"Rugby, we support everyone’s beliefs, but you just can’t do it in a manner where you are trying to hurt … people.”
Many have questioned whether the Waratahs can succeed in the Super Rugby competition without one of their major stars - arguably their biggest - but Foley believes they can.
"He’s a special player and someone I played alongside for a number of years now,” Foley said.
"But as a team it comes down to how we perform as a team, not as individuals. I think we have the depth in this side to be able to cope with that.
"I have really enjoyed training this week in terms of how guys have rallied around each other, and galvanised together and are looking forward to this challenge.”
The Waratahs are attempting to focus internally on beating the Rebels not just to get back in touch in the Aussie conference, but to celebrate Michael Hooper’s 100th game for NSW and Jed Holloway’s 50th.
Foley is confident Beale can step nicely into the no.15 role, and that the kicking strategy used for Folau can still be deployed.
"We have still got it. The kick doesn’t change but the catcher does,” Foley said.
"We have a number options back there. KB is such a talented fullback and I am really excited for him to play a bit freer and out the back where he can inject himself into the game, and pick and choose, where he sees space.”
Though the African sides have negated it defensively, the Rebels’ flat, up-tempo style has been successful against Australian rivals this season and the Tahs know they must stop their rivals’ go-forward.
"They are trying to take on the line and be abrasive in that regard and it has put them on the front foot,” Foley said.
"Their kicking game has been able to apply a lot of pressure as well. They’re the things we have identified and are looking forward to as well to try and go out there and nullify their strengths.”
The Waratahs have won three from three at the SCG in the last two years, over the Reds twice and the Crusaders in their last start at the iconic venue.
The Waratahs take on the Rebels at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Saturday April 20, at 7.45pm. Catch it live on FoxSports, Kayo Sports and on RUGBY.com.au Radio.