Thursday 17 October 2019

'The RFU have been very, very weak' - Gareth Thomas hits out at response to Vunipola and Folau controversies

Former Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas pictured at the Federation of Irish Sport Annual Conference 2019, The Helix, Dublin City University, Dublin. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Former Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas pictured at the Federation of Irish Sport Annual Conference 2019, The Helix, Dublin City University, Dublin. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Sorcha O'Connor

Sorcha O'Connor

Former Welsh captain Gareth Thomas has hit out at Israel Folau for using his platform earned from rugby to promote anti-gay views.

Speaking at the Federation of Irish Sport Conference today at the Helix in Dublin, Thomas said that people had linked the sport of rugby with Folau’s views, when in fact Thomas' own experience with rugby had been entirely different.  

Thomas spoke about the support he received from team-mates, friends, family and spectators when he came out in 2009.  

A decade on, he said his "fear" was that people, particularly children who look up to Folau, could think that it is okay to discriminate against gay people. 

Folau has been sacked after he posted an image on Instagram that said hell awaits homosexuals among others, such as drunks and adulterers. 

Asked what he thought about the recent controversy Thomas said:

"My take on the Folau/Vunipola case is that people are now connecting Folau and rugby together – but what I feel with Folau is that he is taking a platform he has been given by rugby and used his religious beliefs to then promote this.

"Because the platform is mainly rugby, they connected his views to the rugby world. But my experience of being in the rugby world is definitely, definitely not that. You’re on difficult ground when you start talking about religion but it’s not Israel Folau’s first attempt at doing it and my fear is because of a fan base he has built through the game of rugby, it goes against every code of rugby, and I think that him being sacked is the only thing that could’ve been done. 

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"My fear is that that wording has already gone out to the public and I don’t think he understands the platform he has to young children particularly or influential people that will feel if people can say that, why is it not something a child can say to another child in the playground, or something somebody can say to somebody else in the pub or in the park." 

Meanwhile, he said Billy Vunipola’s support of Folau had been met with a "very, very weak" response from the RFU.   

"Billy Vunipola's 'like' and his response, I think the RFU have been very, very weak in their response because to allow somebody to say that just because he is your best player, is a terrible message to show." 

Asked if it was disheartening that this was still going on in the modern day, he said that everyone has a duty to stand up against derogatory remarks.  

"I believe we as a public, the reality is, that we have more of a role to play than we think because we make environments accepting or non-accepting for sports people. I am a big believer in not standing by and listening to people. In sport or within society, if I overheard something and had no relevance to me or was detrimental in a homophobic, racist, transphobic way I’d let that person know I'm offended by it."  

At the event, an emotional Thomas detailed his own journey, when he came out ten years ago. 

Known as Alfie to close pals, he said news spread that he was gay quicker than he had imagined, seeing it flash up on the BBC News in the team hotel before the 2009 Heineken Cup quarter-final with Cardiff Blues against Toulouse. 

However, his teammates quickly found a way to defuse any tension – through laughter. 

"I was playing for Cardiff Blues and obviously we wear blue – but someone in their wisdom somebody decided we would wear electric shocking pink. And a great friend of mine and teammate shouted over, they must have known you were making your announcement Alfie because they got a colour for you.

"We weren’t just talking about the elephant in the room, we were laughing about it. And trust me when you find you can laugh about a problem, that problem can feel small very quickly." 

An emotional Thomas received a standing ovation at the event. The annual conference focused on the theme of inclusivity and diversity. The Federation of Irish Sport wants to challenge the Irish sporting community on its record in delivering real inclusivity; taking in those with disabilities, members of the LGBT community, ethnic minorities and the elderly, and reflecting the priorities set out in the Irish Government’s Irish Sports Policy 2018 – 2027 published last July.  

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