World XV coach says Israel Folau ‘can’t be punished forever’ for homophobic comments  

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Israel Folau of the World XV looks on during the Killik Cup match between Barbarians and a World XV at Twickenham Stadium on May 28, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The former head coach of New Zealand’s national rugby team has defended Israel Folau after he was booed at a World XV match.

Folau played for World XV as the ad-hoc international team faced Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday (28 May). The Australian player is staging an international comeback, and will play for Tonga at the Rugby World Cup this year, after being dropped by Rugby Australia in 2019 over homophobic social media posts.

During the match, which saw World XV lost 48-42, crowds booed Folau and the Rugby Football Union flew the progress Pride flag in support of the LGBTQ+ community

Folau was defended by World XV coach Steve Hansen after the match.

“Everyone is allowed an opinion. We don’t necessarily have to agree with each other on our opinions but you are entitled to have one,” Hansen, who coached the All Blacks between 2012 and 2019, said, as quoted by Planet Rugby

He added: “You can’t be punished for the rest of your life for having an opinion that most of us disagree with.

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“I’ve always been a great believer that you can’t help somebody change by leaving them on the outside.”

Israel Folau of the World XV is tackled by Tevita Li during the Killik Cup match between Barbarians and a World XV at Twickenham Stadium on 28 May 2023 (David Rogers/Getty Images)

Folau, who now plays as a fullback for Japanese team Urayasu D-Rocks, was dropped by Rugby Australia in 2019 for a breach of its code of conduct following anti-LGBTQ+ social media posts. 

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The rugby star is a devout Christian and courted controversy for describing gay people as “sinners” who will go to “hell”. 

Alongside this, he also told a church congregation the devil is to blame for the existence of trans youth and that Australia’s horrific bushfires were the result of “God’s judgement” on the nation for same-sex marriage

The 34-year-old previously said he has “no regrets about anything”. 

In March 2022, he told AFP: “It’s led me here to Japan and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

Prior to the World XV match, Hansen said he thought it was “great” that Twickenham was flying the rainbow flag. 

“It’s an opportunity to show support to that flag. I don’t have a problem with it, I think it’s great,” the NZ Herald reported. “There wouldn’t be one there if Israel wasn’t playing so whenever we can bring attention to people who are suffering in a positive way, I think that’s good. 

“They deserve to be loved and cared for as much as anybody else. If we all did that it’d be a happy place, wouldn’t it.”

Folau switched international allegiance to Tonga after his fall from grace, and is expected to play for the Polynesian country at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

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