In the laneway, hands on hips, he smiles like he’s lit from within. Too easy. Except it wasn’t.
Folau has paid a price for his outspokenness. Although he agreed to terms with Rugby Australia in October, it took countless meetings and some difficult conversations to get it all over the line.
Now, on the eve of the Super Rugby season, a deal the organisation would otherwise be shouting from the rooftops — «four years, one of the most recognisable faces in Australian sport, he chose US!» — has still not been formally announced.
Why? How long have you got.
A private donor who funded a portion of his previous deal is no longer on board, there are social media clauses in his new contract, and he will pop up more than ever before at junior rugby camps and fan days, as RA learns to maximise his exposure among children and teenagers and minimise it among the game’s largely secular, progressive and older fan base.
«It’s a bit of a roller-coaster year, for me, more so off the field with what’s been happening but, to be quite honest, it might sound a bit crazy, but I kind of really enjoyed what was happening off the field,» Folau said that day in Japan. «Not that it happened on purpose, but my identity is based around my faith in God. And I truly believe that from deep down inside, what was happening off the field, even though it was challenging and it was hard, it was actually moulding me into the person [I am] … and taught me a lot of things that I needed to learn, and I’m still learning now.
Not everyone associated with Folau «enjoyed» the fall-out from his April 3 comment on Instagram that gay people were destined for hell. Or the follow-up, a 10-minute sermon carrying strong anti-gay overtones. The Herald understands that Melbourne’s wealthy Salteri family, who made their fortune as one half of construction giant Transfield, chose not to renew their relationship with the decorated dual international on the back of the controversy last year.
The Herald can reveal that the Salteris, listed in 2014 as Australia’s ninth-richest family, had contributed to his previous deal through the Australian Rugby Foundation’s high performance arm, which last year donated $622,000 to select teams and individuals.
Offered the opportunity to contribute again to Folau’s new deal, they declined, although they are in talks to continue their involvement in other areas of the game. The family, notoriously private, did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment.
The shortfall means Folau is likely to have settled for a slightly smaller overall deal than the previous three-year, seven-figure-per-season agreement he signed in 2015. The Herald understands there are also beefed-up social media protocols he must observe, and more appearances required at fan days. It was also reported last year that Wallabies sponsor Landrover took back the car they had lent the fullback.
It is unequivocally a win for Castle and RA, who came under intense pressure to sanction Folau last April. At one point, the three-time John Eales Medalist took a swipe at his boss for suggesting he regretted his comments, and then said he would walk away from rugby, or any sport, before he would compromise his beliefs. Yet there he was in Tokyo six months later, praising Castle for the work she was doing in the wider game and telling his critics he loved them, too.
«Obviously a lot of people will say negative things about what was happening, but it taught me to actually love and forgive them for obviously not agreeing,» he said. «That’s something that I’ve learnt to take on.»
It is a testament to both parties’ maturity that their differences — and egos — could be put to one side. Castle balanced strong freedom of speech imperatives against the clear hurt and potential for harm caused by the comments.
It can’t have hurt that she had a longstanding association with Folau’s wife, Maria Folau (nee Tutaia), through netball in New Zealand (Castle was Netball New Zealand CEO for six years while Maria was one of the sport’s biggest stars). In the end, Castle and Folau talked their way round to an understanding.
The deal is not without risk for RA. They were roundly criticised for offering Michael Hooper $1.2 million per season for another World Cup cycle, and Folau will be 33 by the final year of this new agreement. Presuming it is still in the $1 million per season ballpark, is it money well-spent given the known potential downside?
The organisation thinks so, for three main reasons. Folau remains a huge drawcard among children — he is the first face you see in the Waratahs new-season pitch for junior rugby players — and a beloved role model in the Pacific Islander community.
He is also part of a strategy to lock down a small group of players around which Australia can build their next World Cup squad. Hooper is the other big name in that group, while Brumbies prop Allan Alaalatoa and teenage Reds sensation Jordan Petaia must be the others, given they were also locked in on four-year deals late last year.
And at his best on the playing field there is no one like him. Whether he reaches that potential again over the term of the new deal, is up to him.
So rugby and Izzy, back together for four more years. It won’t always be a comfortable union, but it is a committed one.
Georgina Robinson is the chief rugby reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.