Tuesday 21 August 2018

'We are both grown men, we talked openly' - Israel Folau meets with David Pocock to discuss differences

David Pocock
David Pocock
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

They are the two biggest stars of this Australia team, players feared the world over who will be the twin-pillars Michael Cheika builds his World Cup challenge upon.

And yet Israel Folau and David Pocock are so diametrically opposed on the issue of homosexuality and gay rights that one wonders how they can share the same jersey and represent the same thing.

Australia will be hoping that David Pocock and Israel Folau (pictured) put their differences behind them. Photo: Sportsfile
Australia will be hoping that David Pocock and Israel Folau (pictured) put their differences behind them. Photo: Sportsfile

The beauty of team sport is that it brings players together from all backgrounds, colour, creed and sexuality and gives them a level playing field, but Folau's firmly held belief that gay people go to hell if they don't repent is one that threatens the squad dynamic as he prepares for his first international since his comments on Instagram caused a global controversy.

For many, including All Black scrum-half TJ Perenara, the superstar full-back's views are abhorrent and his argument that they are just part of his religious belief system doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

However, he has escaped any censure from the Australian Rugby Union, while he has refused to apologise or tone down his rhetoric.

Pocock, Australia's No 8, is a leading campaigner on a number of fronts who has committed to holding off on marrying his long-term girlfriend until same-sex marriage is made legal in Australia.

Before his "hell" comments, Folau had already gone public with his opposition to gay marriage and he has faced a flurry of criticism.

Last month the Wallabies held a squad get-together to prepare for this series and Cheika revealed the two leading members of his squad talked about their differences.

Speaking yesterday, Folau explained that the duo did not need their coach's encouragement.

"Look, we just had an open chat about our different beliefs," he said.

"We respect each other, it doesn't change the way we feel about each other. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and what they believe in; it's nothing personal against them. We both understand that.

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"It's a great thing that we are open to each other and it's going to be the same for the next three weeks.

"It won't change anything when we step out on to the field, I'll be there to cover him and so will he (for me). We're 100pc behind each other and that's what we're all about.

"Cheik didn't bring it up - Poey came up to me and just opened a conversation about it.

"We're both grown men and we talk about things openly, it's nothing personal. I respect Poey for bringing it up."

He remains the best player in Australia and has been in glittering form despite ongoing speculation over his future in union against the backdrop of the controversy.

On Saturday night he scored a sensational try to become the New South Wales Waratahs' leading try-scorer of all time and is earning rave reviews for his performances, despite having his religious beliefs and hard-line views hauled over the coals internationally.

Back in April, the evangelical Christian espoused the view that gay people will go to hell and he has stood by his remarks amidst wave after wave of criticism.

He attempted to stave off the backlash with a lengthy essay on 'The Player's Voice' website in which he said he respected others' position, but stood by his beliefs.

"Those conversations come up and I'm more than happy to talk about it," he said.

"It's something that I live by, it drives me each day. It helps me personally when I go out on to the footy field to play the game, so I'm more than happy to openly talk about it.

"In the end, we're here to play footy. I respect everyone in the team and what they believe in. As team-mates there's no judgement there, I respect them for who they are. That's a part of our identity as a team, everyone is from different backgrounds.

"I expected that (the backlash), it doesn't surprise me at all. It doesn't change anything for me."

Earlier, at a press conference beneath a giant Australia jersey hanging from the rafters of Suncorp Stadium, Folau admitted: "I don't really know much about Ireland."

In his defence, he and the rest of the squad played Super Rugby at the weekend and will begin their more detailed preparation as the week goes on, but the Grand Slam champions and No 2 ranked team in the world might feel they deserve a little more respect.

He has faced Ireland a number of times and played against the Johnny Sexton-inspired Lions in 2013.

"I definitely know that they're a team that can grind out a win in 80 minutes, you're not going to win the game in the first 20 or 30 minutes - that's all I know," he said when asked about his prior experiences.

"They've got guys like Sexton and that, some pretty smart play-makers who are a real threat in attack and a great kicking game, so it's something we've got to be aware of.

Their set-piece is pretty good too, that's something we as a team have to be aware of.

"In detail, we'll go into it as the week goes on."

Ireland, of course, know all about Folau and his strong recent form will be taken fully into account as they prepare for the first Test at Suncorp Stadium.

He may be a deeply divisive figure, but he's a hell of a rugby player and that's why the Wallabies have gone to such lengths to bite their tongues and accommodate him - for better or for worse.

Irish Independent

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