Super League side Catalans Dragons have announced the signing of controversial Australian full-back Israel Folau, who joins with immediate effect.
The 30-year-old dual-code international, who has not played since being sacked by Rugby Australia last May for making homophobic comments on social media, has signed a one-year contract with the club.
Dragons chairman Bernard Guasch said: “We want to give Israel a new opportunity to shine on the pitch.”
Folau, who played for Melbourne and Brisbane before switching codes, was told he would not be allowed to return to the NRL but the Rugby Football League has confirmed it will not prevent his registration with the Dragons.
A statement said: “This is a difficult decision, as the RFL places a high value on the sport’s reputation in prioritising inclusion and diversity – and deplores the player’s previous comments.
“However the moral responsibility for deciding whether to sign a player sits with individual clubs.
“The player has not been charged or found guilty of any criminal offence.
“However distasteful his previous comments, we don’t believe that, under our current regulatory framework, these can prevent his participation in the sport.”
Folau said: “I acknowledge the views expressed by Super League and the Rugby Football League.
“I’m a proud Christian, my beliefs are personal, my intention is not to hurt anyone and I will not be making further public comment about them.
“I look forward to my return to the great game of rugby league with the Catalans Dragons.”
Wigan responded to the controversial signing by announcing their round six match against Catalans would be named Pride Day as the club look to support the LGBTQ+ community.
The Warriors say their players will wear Rainbow socks and laces for the game on Sunday, March 22 and will invite LGBTQ+ groups.
Wigan executive director Kris Radlinski said: “Here at Wigan Warriors we are committed to the core values of inclusion and respect.
“Our community foundation have a long history of supporting local LGBTQ+ groups and initiatives and we want everyone who engages with our game to feel welcome, valued and most of all, respected.
“Rugby League has a strong history of inclusion, of breaking down barriers and of being a forward-thinking sport. I think that today more than any day that it is vitally important we reiterate that message.
Super League & RFL Statement on the signing of Israel Folau.
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) January 28, 2020
“We’re looking forward to working with charities, local and hopefully national groups, to make this day a success.”
The signing brought a strong reaction from Halifax forward Keegan Hirst, an openly gay professional rugby league player.
“I’m shocked and disappointed at the signing of @IzzyFolau,” Hirst said on Twitter. “Our great game is tasked with fighting against homophobia and standing up for the values it puts such high stock in.
“It shows none of the bravery, camaraderie or integrity @rfl expects from its players, staff and fans.”
Super League’s executive chairman Robert Elstone has stated his opposition to the Folau signing, claiming it lets down many people in the sport.
“Super League deplores the homophobic comments Israel Folau has made in the past, which squarely contradict our sport’s core values,” Elstone said.
“I have sought the opinion of informed voices connected to our game and the majority share my disappointment that one of our clubs has chosen to sign him.
“There is a strong feeling that the decision to sign him lets down many people connected to our sport.
“I made Catalans Dragons aware of those views.
“However, Super League does not have the authority to veto the registration of players and is satisfied by the due diligence carried out by The Rugby Football League.”