Folau and his family flew back to Australia to be by his mother-in-law’s side and they have been in Brisbane ever since. That situation is why Folau recently requested a release from the final year of his deal with Catalans on compassionate grounds, despite his gratitude towards the club for showing faith in him when few would.
When Griffin returned from Queensland in the new year, he told Dragons chief executive Ryan Webb that Folau had a genuine desire to return to the NRL after a decade away from the competition.
Webb put the idea to the Dragons board members, receiving support from the club’s directors to take the enquiry to the NRL.
The next phone call was to NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo, who quickly looped in ARLC chairman Peter V’landys to notify him of the Dragons’ interest. The message to St George Illawarra was simple – the game would consider an application to register Folau.
Even if some at the NRL want to slam the door forever on Folau, none will do so for fear of the potential legal consequences of failing to provide him due process and a fair opportunity to submit an application for registration. Head office got a taste of the potential backlash on social media following the Herald’s revelations on Tuesday afternoon, and the game has publicly stated within its diversity-and-inclusion policy that it wants to make the game available to all.
But even if there was a desire to reject Folau’s application because of his beliefs, there are differing views as to whether the NRL can legally prohibit him from playing based on his controversial social media posts, especially as the game has previously registered players who have spent time behind bars for criminal offences.
Sources close to Folau told the Herald he had no interest in a legal tussle to secure his future, but said he wanted the opportunity to sit down with V’landys and Abdo to put his position.
At the end of 2019 at his first press conference as ARLC chairman, V’landys was bullish in his stance against Folau. “The game is inclusive. Israel’s comments are not inclusive,” he said at the time.
He later went on to say: “I have no tolerance for people that put other people’s lives [at risk] or [commit] violence.”
V’landys stopped short of saying he would not allow Folau to play, but the chairman hoped his message would act as a strong enough deterrent to convince clubs not to pursue the player’s services.
Apart from a nibble from the Wests Tigers early last year, V’landys’ warning seemed to have worked, until now.
Mindful that Qantas had threatened to walk out on Rugby Australia during the drawn-out saga of Folau’s contentious social media posts that dominated the headlines two years ago, Webb has over the past fortnight contacted a number of the Dragons’ major sponsors to raise the prospect of signing Folau.
The Herald understands the Dragons have received assurances that none of their partners will abandon their deals, although St George Bank has expressed concerns.
In the Herald’s CEO and chairman’s poll last March, the game’s key figures had warmed to the idea of Folau returning, with 40 per cent of respondents declaring they would support his comeback with strict conditions.
At the time of the poll, one high-ranking NRL official told the Herald it was hypocritical of the NRL not to allow him to play.
“All we hear is about inclusiveness, but it’s hypocritical to say we’re a game that accepts everyone when we won’t accept him or his beliefs,” one senior NRL club figure said at the time.
“If he agrees to strict rules and has learnt his lesson, why shouldn’t he be allowed to come back? He hasn’t committed a crime.”
Folau stands to earn $1 million over the next two seasons if he manages to secure a spot on the Dragons roster, not to mention the other NRL clubs that may now launch their own bids to sign him.
But sources close to the player say an NRL return is not about money. He has had offers to play rugby union in Europe worth more than double what the Dragons are willing to pay but he wants to be in Australia because of his family situation.
Should an agreement be reached for Folau to play in the NRL, there will be strict conditions around social media use.
The Dragons believe an application has been made and are waiting on a response from the governing body.
The NRL believes it’s still waiting on a formal application from the Dragons with greater detail. Regardless, it’s expected to be a major topic of conjecture when the ARL Commission gathers on Thursday for the first time this year.
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Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald