Rugby Australia's director of rugby Scott Johnson says he is a passionate advocate of rugby being an inclusive sport and revealed how he was "privileged" to play a key role in helping Wales legend Gareth Thomas come to terms with his sexuality more than a decade ago.
Johnson's first month in his new job has coincided with the Israel Folau controversy exploding, and while the new DoR sidestepped a direct comment on Folau to media on Wednesday, he affirmed his stance of inclusivity in rugby by sharing the story of his role in Thomas coming out as a gay athlete.
Johnson was the first person in rugby that Thomas felt comfortable coming out to and he saw the emotional toll that struggle had on the 103-Test back.
The pair had developed a close bond during the years Johnson served a assistant and caretaker Wales coach, prior to Johnson taking up a role with the Wallabies.
In 2006, after Australia had played out a 29-29 draw with Wales in Cardiff, a distraught Thomas asked to speak to Johnson, who was in the opposing rooms.
Thomas confided in Johnson about troubles in his marriage and his struggle with his sexual identity.
With the Wallabies' blessing, Johnson stayed with Thomas to support him for the next day and it was the Australian assistant who ultimately told Thomas’s teammates and coaches why their captain had been in emotional turmoil.
Thomas publicly came out in 2009 and has since spoken about Johnson’s support in the years since. But the narrative has often been told as though the 2006 moment occurred while Johnson was still coaching with Wales.
Australia played three more Tests that tour, beating Italy and Scotland but losing to Ireland, and when it wrapped, Johnson went back to Wales for a week to support Thomas - at the insistence of the then-ARU.
"Over the time, the story doesn't really come out or do its justice in that I wasn't coaching and everyone thinks at the time I was coaching Gareth and this is where I say, a situation like that transcends the sport and countries," he said.
"Both countries - I finished up hopping on my bus to go to Italy five minutes before departure the next morning, so the best part of 18 hours in the opposition hotel, camp, with a player and post-tour I was sent down for another week to make sure we gave him his best support we could."
It is the support of the Wallabies in 2006, though, that Johnson said spoke most loudly about the values of rugby.
“I remember after the Test match that we played in Cardiff - this is what I love about the sport - I love that I'm now coaching his opposition and I get called into his change room because he only wanted to talk to me and I spent the next 24 hours offsite in the opposition's hotel talking to his teammates because he couldn't,” he said.
Johnson said he was proud to have been able to help Thomas through such a difficult time in his life.
“As what happens, when you're a coach you get great affinity with players and I think you have a responsibility as a coach, just goes beyond just rugby, this is a human relationship,” he said.
“I had a kid that I absolutely loved to coach, I loved what he stood for, troubled.
“And I look back at that time and was honoured that he picked me, I love the fact that he's become the man he has.
“I think he stands for so many good things and what our sport, well in this case, backed me. This went beyond the sport, it cut across countries.
“I wasn't coaching him, this cut across countries. I'm very proud and privileged to say that I was part of that.”
While he said he would leave debate around Israel Folau’s future in the game until the Wallabies star had a chance to share his side of the story, Johnson said those moments with Thomas showed the importance of inclusion was an issue bigger than just sport.
“Israel's got a chance to put his case forward with the tribunal this week. I want to make it really clear - I'm very supportive of where Rugby Australia is in this stance.
"Whilst I wasn't there on the initial thing but what I will say and I'm utmost for what I stand for is we want a game that includes everyone.
“I've had kids that have come out of addiction issues and I was also very, very privileged and honoured to be...the person that Gareth Thomas needed to talk to about his sexuality.
“The sport allowed Gareth in a very dark period to come out and I look at the success of the man today.
“So, Israel I'll park until he has his chance to say his side of the story but as a sport and what Rugby Australia stands for, I'm all for including all types.”
Thomas has been openly critical of Israel Folau’s post and the reaction from England international Billy Vunipola but Johnson said the pair hadn’t spoken about the issue at all.
“I haven't - it's one of those things we don't need to,” he said.
“When we see each other, we give each other a big hug and I'm proud to be involved in the sport.
“I'm really proud of the man he has become and I don't ever want us to lose that as a sport.”