Sunday 18 August 2019

Neil Francis: 'Save your disgust for the real issues'

‘Israel Folau’s post was crazy and archaic. No right thinking person could agree with what he said’. Photo: Getty
‘Israel Folau’s post was crazy and archaic. No right thinking person could agree with what he said’. Photo: Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Some time after 10.0 last Thursday morning I logged a phone call with the offices of the IRFU. The point of the call was that at some time between April 10 and April 11, Bundee Aki had 'liked' Israel Folau's now infamous post on Instagram.

A screen grab of the 'like' was available in social media circles, and I wondered if the IRFU would like to comment on this. Were they aware of its existence and did they intend to do anything about it?

Initially it was explained away as literally a slip of the thumb and it was not a big deal as it had been deleted/'unliked'. I made the point that the day after the Folau post that the Daily Mail had a story about Sam Stanley, the England sevens and Harlequins squad player who is openly gay, who said he "was disappointed to see a couple of players, like Ireland centre Bundee Aki 'like' his (Folau's) post on Instagram but he doesn't represent our sport". Quite why Stanley picked out Aki's 'like' is open to conjecture because there were quite a number of 'likes' on the post - a lot of them from the Polynesian community and rugby players dotted around the world.

Maybe it was not in response to my query, but out of the blue Aki issued a well-worded clarification at 3.10 that afternoon. The clarification came two weeks after the initial 'like' and may not have been published if the questions had not been asked. If Aki did not look at what he 'liked', just when did he realise what the post was about? And did he realise it himself or did somebody realise it for him?

Billy Vunipola's situation is somewhat different. There is no ambiguity or inadvertency about his 'like' because Vunipola admitted that he liked it and attempted to double down and back it up with his own words.

Folau's post was crazy and archaic. No right-thinking person could agree with what he said. I don't. Nor could you endorse it, by posting a 'like' on social media, which is what Vunipola did. We do, however, have to ask the question as to why somebody like Vunipola would 'like' Folau's post and then make his own statement.

There is, it seems, a push to make rugby union a sport of inclusivity and diversity. It is important to remember that the rugby union family is a broad church. We have a schools game, we have an amateur game - male and female - we have a female game stuck between amateur and semi-professionalism and then we have the male professional sport. The amateur game is diverse and inclusive of all shapes, sizes, creeds and codes. The professional male game . . . well, not so much. The male professional game is an exclusive chapel and while tiny pockets of minorities subsist there, they will always remain just that. It is for the followers that there is a requirement for inclusion.

If the game celebrates diversity, well then we must welcome our Polynesian brothers. However, in the push for diversity and inclusivity, we must also understand that they can be mutually exclusive. Sometimes people's diversity does not countenance inclusiveness for some or all minorities. The core beliefs of a lot of Polynesian people might not fit in with everyone else's views.

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Vunipola's explanation in his post was inarticulate and didactic. The general thrust of the post was innocuous. The issue here is really the 'like' of Folau's post. Worldwide most media outlets led with his line "man was made for woman to procreate. That was the goal! No?" This line was widely quoted because it was probably considered to be offensive. I'm still struggling to see how that can be offensive.

The principal imperative of every single species on this planet is to breed and propagate the species. That is what every species is designed and programmed to do, including humans.

Most will, some won't.

Most can, some can't.

Most choose to, some choose not to.

In Polynesian culture there is a heavy emphasis on family and the blessing of having children. Polynesians tend to have big families, it is in their nature. It is a core belief. How can you castigate the man on this particular issue? I believe in Ireland we have traditionally cherished family and big families.

Vunipola was roundly booed by a portion of the Munster fans at the Ricoh Arena last Saturday. We take our protections, I think, a little too lightly in this country. Article 40.6.1i of the Irish constitution provides that the state guarantees liberty for the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions. Firstly Vunipola is not a citizen of the Irish state but maybe some booing him would be mindful of the protection and privilege that they have, or maybe we should not bother about the pretence to freedom of speech or freedom of expression. The reality, though, is that nobody in this country can speak their mind anymore. That is a truly dreadful state of affairs.

And so in the rush to align themselves with the righteous maybe the prevailing mindset was that we can do anything we like once we pay our money at the gate and that includes booing a man who 'liked' an unpleasant and unnecessary social media post. In the greater scheme of things, would we not be better reserving our disapproval for things that really merit it?

It is only a minor point, but over the course of the Heineken Cup's existence, Irish teams have played with and against people who have murdered people, who have killed people, who have raped and sexually assaulted people, who have beaten up their wives, sold drugs to children and brutally assaulted other players and other people, and not a boo was heard.

What sort of a warped society do we have that we watch a private army march down the main street of the capital city? A private army that is controlled by murderers and bombers and extremely dangerous men whose principal aim is to overthrow this state. A private army that funds itself by way of the best-organised drugs cartel on the island, north and south.

A private army that murdered a young woman in Derry last week. A private army that up until only last week had its own account on Twitter to disseminate hate speech. Real hate speech. A private army that marched around Dublin in full regalia, and yet there was not one act of defiance or disapproval or a chorus of boos. Shame on us. And then some of us are booing a sportsman who hasn't broken any law by 'liking' a post on Instagram. Warped!

What would have happened at Thomond Park last night if Aki hadn't made his clarification?

Then, we had the unedifying spectacle of a Munster supporter coming onto the pitch to remonstrate with Vunipola. The man came within 10 metres of Vunipola, uttered an expletive and gave Vunipola the finger. It was faintly ridiculous that a man dressed in hush puppies would threaten one of the most powerful athletes in the world.

Cast your mind back to March 11 when a yob assaulted Jack Grealish of Aston Villa during a match at Birmingham City. Most people who run onto the pitch are, well, just harmless morons. Paul Mitchell, however, decided to attack Grealish. Who is to know when the next Monica Seles moment is going to arrive? Our brave, diminutive Munster jersey-wearing friend, whatever his issue, only got so far, but maybe he could have got closer, possibly too close. International rugby players are so strong that one punch in the act of defending himself could have killed Mr Mitty. How would Vunipola know that this guy didn't have a weapon or what his intentions were? It was a disgraceful and dangerous act, and the individual should never be allowed into another rugby match.

As for the man who has caused all this trouble, the circus starts on May 4. There are unfortunately going to be lots of losers. Despite media reports stating that Folau is sacked or is going to be sacked, the fact is that he is still employed by Rugby Australia. The bottom line here is that despite what Folau has done (again) I think Rugby Australia (RA) have handled it badly from all points of view. They may find against him and sack him but he will most assuredly appeal, all the way to the supreme court if need be. The cost of paying out his contract and the cost of appeals in higher courts is millions. Rugby Australia haven't a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of and will find that despite Folau's "alleged breach", there will be a goodly number of other factors in play here. The situation is intractable and there will be no good outcome for anyone out of this, but particularly not RA.

Pity the Champions Cup is getting in the way of all this.

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