Asked if he was disappointed in Folau’s actions, he said: “I’m not disappointed in the individual because if that’s what he believes, and that’s where his passion is, I will never tell someone to hide it. I might not agree with everyone, but I’d never want someone to not say what they feel. I’m no person to judge.
“The other disappointing part is that we lost one of our best players; a guy who I helped come back. I wouldn’t say I’m responsible for what’s happened. It’s just life. But I had to do what was needed for the team.”
Cheika soothed the impasse between Rugby Australia and Folau in April last year after Folau made his initial anti-gay comment in response to one of his Instagram followers.
Folau was then re-signed for four years on a $5.7 million deal that made him the highest-paid player in Australian rugby.
When he made his inflammatory post a year later about homosexuals, among others, going to hell, the coach was less conciliatory, saying he couldn’t pick Folau again because “the team is king”.
Cheika bristled at claims the playing group was divided over Folau’s eventual sacking.
“There was an inference of some type of split — that’s so untrue,” he said. “We had to make some hard decisions.
“But [claims of a split] was the opposite of the truth. And that’s the fundamental thing about great teams: they trust each other, they’re united when it’s really tough.
“And I think it’s shown to be a total untruth with the way this team has played this season. It’s been disproved by the spirit and team camaraderie that’s been shown.”
There had been fears of a mutiny among Polynesian players who shared Folau’s views. After he was sacked in May, Taniela Tupou posted on Facebook: “Seriously … Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs”.
But Cheika said any concerns were quickly put to rest in a team meeting.
“Of course, we had to address it,” he said. “We spoke about it in small groups, then one on one, and then in the team environment together, so everyone was clear on what was going on. Then we got on with business, which is representing Australia in footy. That’s what we’re here to do.”
Cheika was instrumental in 2013 in convincing Folau to sign with the Wallabies and Waratahs instead of returning to rugby league with the Parramatta Eels.
Folau is suing Rugby Australia for as much as $10 million for unlawful dismissal and restraint of trade. The matter is set down for February in the Federal Circuit Court.
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.