In what she described as a "landmark decision", Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle announced Israel Folau's contract termination on Friday.
The chief executive later sat down with RUGBY.com.au to walk through the Folau saga, revealing what was said during her discussions with the Wallaby after his controversial posts in 2018, and her firm belief Folau understood where the line was set for subsequent acceptable social media use.
Castle also spoke about the "harmful" impact of Folau's later posts on the gay community, why rugby elected to re-sign the star player but then had "no choice" but to sack him only months later.
The Rugby Australia boss also spoke about her confidence other Aussie Polynesian players feel free to express their faith, freedom of speech, dealing with further legal action and her belief that the Folau case will be noted by sporting bodies and athletes "around the world".
Watch the full interview above, and read the full Q and A below.
Q: You have just announced Israel’s contract has been terminated. You also said you have been saddened by the events of the last month or two. And others have said there are no real winners out of all this. Is that a fair statement?
A: Yeah I think it is. It really is. For everyone. Both for Israel and the fact he won’t play rugby for the Wallabies again, for the fans that have had to live through a month of this speculation, for the teammates who have had to live with the fallout and for the rest of the Rugby Australia employees, I think it has been a really difficult time.
But at the end of the day, the values of Rugby Australia have to stand up and that’s for all employees, regardless of whether they’re players or whether they’re wider employee base. From our perspective, from Rugby Australia’s perspective, Israel breached those values when he put his views and expressed them in a way that is not respectful. Unfortunately we had no other choice but to take the path of action that we did.
Q: Israel first said similar messages last year. Why was he not sacked at that point?
A: I am a great believer in everyone needs a first chance. Don’t make the same mistake twice is probably the motto that I would use as a leader, and we had some very honest conversations with Israel around the time of his posting. He certainly lived through the media furore that happened over the first one. We had some very robust discussions around the grief that it caused Rugby Australia and some of our fanbase, and how offended they were.
In my mind I was very clear that Israel knew that anything like this that was posted again was going to have a similar reaction.
Q: There has been some dispute about his interpretations of those conversations. Can you take us a little more into them - did you feel like you left him with a pretty clear picture of what right and wrong was going forward?
A: I think specifically having used the words “hell” and “gay”, and the homosexual community, in the first post, we had specific conversations about the harm that it had caused the community. And the offence it has caused to that community.
To use those very same words again, to create that same issue with that same community is something I was very surprised about. Because it had been very clear from what I had said that we supported his strong religious view, in fact we were proud of his strong religious view, but that he needed to express those in a respectful way.
And he had done so, since that post last year. He had been posting his very deep religious views in a really respectful and everyone was very comfortable with that. But unfortunately this last post was not that, and there were many people in our community who were offended by it?
Q: And Michael Cheika? Was he involved in similar conversations, in particular, about the impact on the Wallabies as a team?
A: Michael and I had separate conversations. I had probably had three direct conversations with Israel in person and I had certainly had a couple of additional conversations with his manager about our expectations in signing a new contract, and where those expectations lay. Michael had conversations specifically in relation to the team.
So I am of the view, Rugby Australia is of the view, that Israel was very clear where the line was.
Q: Israel has been fairly strong all the way along that he wouldn’t compromise his faith. You guys entered into a new round of contract negotiations. With the benefit of hindsight, is there any regret, not seeing that there could be potential problems?
A: There is. From my point of view, there certainly is. But I probably would have had to have a really good crystal ball and I didn’t have that.
What I had was some conversations with Israel where I believed we were clear that he understood where the line was.
From where I sit, he signed a new contract and that contract had the same code of conduct in it, it had the same values, it had the same expectations set out. He also completed some significant training around what was offensive in certain communities.
So I believed that he understood what was respectful and was disrespectful.
Q: Can you clarify the contract side of things ? There has been talk there were clauses attempted to be added on and so forth. Is that accurate? Or did you believe the code of conduct was a sufficient document to handle any future breaches?
A: We certainly believe the code of conduct is a baseline and is a good document that supports this. We would have also liked an additional clause that gave us extra protection but the reality is this is a collective agreement, and you can’t add clauses that are to the detriment of the player.
You can add positive clauses; more money, more shoes, more cars. But you can’t add more clauses that are detrimental to the player unless you have the players association’s and also Israel Folau’s consent.
That consent was not given from the player so that makes it very hard. Off the back of that conversation we agreed, and gave to Israel and his manager a second letter that made our expectations of his social media use clear.
And then I also sat down in person and had that very specific conversation with Israel about my expectations, in relation to his new contract and in relation to the impact his 2018 postings had had. We explained to him we couldn’t have a situation like that again because the impact on the game was just far too great.
Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him. _______________ Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these , adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21 KJV _______________ Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Acts 2:38 KJV _______________ And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Acts 17:30 KJV _______________
Q: On April 9 at around 6pm, Israel posted the now infamous Instagram message. Can you remember where you were and your reaction when you saw that?
A: When he posted the first message about the Tasmanian government’s view (on gender on birth certificates), I thought oh goodness me this is going to be interesting. Then when he posted the second post I knew we were in exactly the same territory we were 12 months ago. I immediately tried to get hold of Israel’s manager to get him to get hold of Israel and say: “What’s going on? What were you thinking?”.
That took us more than 24 hours. More like 36 hours to actually get hold of Israel. That put us in a really difficult situation. We knew the post was doing harm and was against the values of Rugby Australia; we had a similar situation to what we had 12 months ago and we needed to stand up. Rugby Australia needed to stand up and say “we have got values and we are prepared to stand by”. And we have a player that is not living by those values.
Q: You said right from the outset that you were seeking to terminate the contract. Why was it such a strong stance from the get-go, and why was it not no reference to a sanction and potential alternatives?
A: Because having been through the first one, where we sat down and were very mature on both sides, about approaching the 2018 posts and recognising that everyone deserves to make a mistake and we can work through that and educate someone to make sure they can be better and make better choices around the language they used, we couldn’t guarantee that having had all those conversations - and he said he understood where the line was and still went ahead and posted - there were no guarantees he wouldn’t go and post again.
And they are harmful. I have had numerous - hundreds - of people contact me about the specifics of the harm, that it’s made them re-live how they found it very difficult to come out.
Parents of young children, saying: “I have a 15-year-old who really looks up to Israel and is struggling with his sexuality”.
Those things are really difficult to hear and make it very real. It’s not just the rugby community at a distance. It’s stories that you’re dealing with first-hand.
So it was causing harm, it was against our values and we believed it was a direct breach of contract and we had to seek termination.
Q: It’s a very divisive issue obviously and it’s been in the headlines. There is a group of people who say this is suppression of freedom of speech and suppression of religious freedoms. What is your response on that topic?
A: This is a contract breach. Israel signed a contract, as all our professional players do that come under a professional players’ code of conduct. All of our employees sign a contract that signs up to our values, and the expectation is that you live by that contract.
We support people with their differing views and their differing opinions, and differing religious stances that many of our players have across our game.
It is very clear that you are absolutely welcome to express your views but you have to express them in a respectful way, and you have to express them in a way that doesn’t cause hurt and harm to our community. Or to a portion of our community.
And if you’re going to do that, it’s going to cause an issue.
The reality is that if we weren’t talking about a professional footballer, if we were talking about marketing manager, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. That person would have just been terminated and they would have left the building.
That’s an important part in this conversation. Players sign big contracts, they’re ambassadors for our sport, sponsors sign up because they want to use them as ambassadors. And they need to align with the values of Rugby Australia.
Q: Israel has mentioned since that he could have kept playing but has chosen not to. Was there any attempt to broker peace through this process, with apologies or anything of the sort?
A: Not really. From our point of view, the damage was done. We didn’t really see there was a way back and Israel never came to the table to suggest he was prepared to … if he’d taken the post down in the first 24 hours and apologised … but there is no point talking about that because we’re not there.
Q: And a settlement you discussed in the press conference, but that never reached a level of advanced talks?
A: It would be very normal in an employee-employer situation like this that had a contract dispute that you would sit down and find a way to settle that. The reality is whilst the lawyers did have some discussions to see if they can find a way to get to that stage, it never reached a position where iy could be taken for consideration to the Rugby Australia board.
Q: There may be potential further litigation. Is Rugby Australia prepared for that, and will further litigation imperil the game’s finances?
A: I think it is an exaggeration to say it will imperil the game’s finances - I don’t believe that to be true. Certainly I believe this is money that we could be spending on the rugby community and that’s disappointing. Every dollar that we spend on legal fees is a dollar that we don’t spend in the community. That is the reality.
What I would say is that Israel also knew the implications.
The first time around when he posted the first time and the implications for the wider game was something the tribunal took into consideration, both financial and also reputation from a disrepute perspective, when they got to the stage where they decided termination was the only option.
Q: There has also been some discussion about potential division or harmony issues with Polynesian players, who are often religious and friends with Israel. Have you sought to speak to them in particular and to address concerns?
I have. I have spoken to a number of players myself and Scott Johnson and Michael Cheika have also spoken to players. And once they understand and it is explained to them the differentiation of what Israel did versus what they want to do, there is no issue.
Rugby Australia for a very long time been supportive of the multicultural nature of our game, both within our playing groups and also in our wider rugby community. And that’s really important, that everyone can feel safe in that environment and express their views, be (they) religious, be race, be creed, background, different nations coming together to play rugby.
That’s one of the things that’s so fantastic things about our sport and no group or no person deserves to be isolated and feel uncomfortable that they can’t be part of rugby.
I am very confident that our players of faith feel comfortable expressing their faith and will continue to do so, as we have seen over the last couple off weeks. But they also need to understand and they do understand that they need to express those views in a respectful way.
Q: You spoke about this being a "landmark decision”. Why do you feel this was such an important moment in a sporting context?
Because I think there are two parts to it. One is I think the values are very important. But secondly the playing contract and the employment contract is there for a reason. It’s no different whether you are a professional rugby player or whether you are a marketing manager.
Those two things are, your signed employment contract that sets out expectations about how you are going to behave as an employee and you need to live by those expectations.
This will be something that sports all around the world will look at. And getting the balance in between being able to express your views, and being proudly a person of faith if that’s what it is to you. But recognising you need to do that, when you sign your contract, in line with the expectations of your contract.
And if you don’t feel comfortable and marrying up with the values of that organisation, and the expectations that organisation has with your particular views or values, then maybe you shouldn’t sign that contract. And I think that’s a consideration more athletes need to take.
They often don’t even read the contract. Their player manager puts it in front of them and says ‘sign this, it’s all good go’.
But this will, I believe, ensure that players need to think long and hard before they sign their contract.
Q: Have you spoken to other major sporting codes in Australia? Have you had contact with them? Obviously they would have had a very keen interest in how this was all playing out.
I have. They have been fantastic, all the major professional codes have reached out to me. In their own ways they’re all facing their own battles at the moment.
In a different way as the maturity of professionalism grows, as the profile of those athletes grow and as social media becomes such an integrated and engaged part of our sporting environment, there are lessons to be learned for all of us.
There is no doubt they will be taking away the learnings that we’ve found, as we do with what rugby league is dealing with at the moment.
Q: There is a World Cup around the corner and the game has been preoccupied heavily with this over the last month or two. A lot of attention, your attention I suppose, has been diverted. What are the next steps for you, to put rugby back on the footing that you would like it to be?
A: It has, and the good thing that has happened is that we have been through a process and our processes have proven to stand up.
Whatever happens separately now we can deal with that. We just have a job to do to and select the best possible Wallaby team we can to send off to the World Cup, and give Michael Cheika the support he needs to make that a winning Wallabies team.
We’ve got sevens teams that are trying to qualify for Tokyo, which is important. We have the Wallaroos playing landmark Test matches that haven’t had the opportunity before. We had the bi-partisan support for the development of Ballymore, and that’s something that Queensland, the Reds and Rugby Australia has worked hard on so it could come together.
We had the 20s victory over New Zealand, which was just fantastic. And I am heading off to London tonight to go to Dublin to talk whether a World Rugby Nations Championship is something that would be good for our game going forward, because that would be another promising thing.
So the game hasn’t stopped delivering great outcomes while I have been distracted doing this but I don’t want to be doing this.
This is about looking in the rear vision mirror and I don’t want to be doing that. I want to be looking forward, making sure my time is spent on making the game is stronger and more successful.