SYDNEY – Australia’s director of rugby Scott Johnson admits the drawn-out Israel Folau saga is hurting the game and revealed he has spoken to Polynesian players concerned their religious beliefs are under attack.
Devoutly Christian Folau was found guilty last week of a "high-level" breach of the sport’s code of conduct after posting an anti-gay statement on social media.
A three-person tribunal is considering what sanction it merits, which could range from the sack, as demanded by the governing body, to a suspension or fines.
While some, including within the Wallabies camp, have been critical of his comments, several Pacific Island-origin players are reportedly deeply hurt by the way Folau has been treated.
Notably, prop Taniela Tupou said in a recent Facebook post, which has since been deleted: "Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs.
"I will never apologise for my faith and what I believe in, religion (has) got nothing to do with rugby anyway," he added.
Johnson, who only started his job as the Folau scandal blew up last month, said people were entitled to their opinion and he had chatted with several Polynesian players to listen to their views.
"I have spoken to a few of them, to first and foremost make sure they’re ok," he told Fox Sports in an interview on Saturday evening.
"As I keep saying we are in a people’s business, and you have to get to know people. It’s important."
But Johnson, who has backed the move to terminate Folau’s four-year contract, also reminded them they were paid to play rugby.
"We are an inclusive game and they are a big part of our culture and our rugby culture. We don’t want to make it divisive," he said.
"It’s about spending time and understanding the issue, but what I have come across so far I think is respectful both ways and they’re paid to play rugby, and I think they understand that."
Johnson’s worry is that the row is overshadowing the game, with media coverage largely focused on the Folau issue.
"Last week probably epitomised it for me, where we had such a successful under-20s campaign in defeating New Zealand for the first time in such a long period, the Brumbies had a good come-from-behind win and rugby’s not spoken about," he said.
"That’s the most frustrating thing and everything appears to be negative or a slant by an individual or a comment about the individual.
"We’re about the game, we’re rugby people, we want to talk about the game and we should be proud of our game, it’s an extensive worldwide game but at the moment we’re not talking about it."