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Gallagher column: Root of Israel Folau case grew from shame of apartheid

Israel Folau

Revisiting the 1969-70 Springboks tour last week in these pages was a surprisingly painful business. I thought all the angst over that troublesome period of the sport’s history had finally washed away but it all came flooding back.

It was a brutal, unequivocal reminder of rugby’s solidarity, over decades, with apartheid South Africa. Run by white Anglo Saxon male administrators of a certain age and political persuasion, rugby instinctively looked to support and excuse their good friends and wartime allies in South Africa rather than to expose and condemn.

It was, in fact, rugby’s darkest hour and came after even longer decades of black players and players of colour being marginalised or excluded altogether. On the flip side it also offers an explanation of why rugby is now the most progressive and inclusive of sports, much more of which anon.

Even after that stormy tour of 1969-70, Rugby Union continued to bury its head in the sand and provide succour to the South Africans. France embarked on full tours in 1971, 1975 and 1980, England visited in 1972 and 1984, an Argentinian based Jaguars XV toured in 1980, 1982 and 1984, while New Zealand arrived in 1970 and 1976.

The Lions – having toured in 1968 – continued to fly in the face of public outrage and returned in 1974 and 1980. New Zealand, in all but name, also visited in 1986 under the banner of the Cavaliers who were hastily assembled to replace the Lions who had finally seen the light and refused to tour until there was regime change.

Just to add further vitriol to the protestors was the perception – wrongly or rightly – that some amateur players received handsome renumeration for their willingness to play in South Africa and indirectly support the regime.

All this went on, remember, while the rest of the sporting world – notably cricket and the Olympic movement – boycotted South Africa and the shame of it has, to a certain extent, haunted rugby ever since. Rugby was spectacularly on the wrong side of history and since then, by way of compensation, has been trying to make up lost ground.

The 1995 World Cup was a ‘moment’ although in all honesty that was largely down to President Mandela’s prescience and humanity and Pieter Hendrik’s timely ban and expulsion from the tournament which allowed Chester Williams to re-enter the fray.

It was nonetheless the breakthrough, the chink of light, that rugby in South Africa needed and could build on while since then rugby has relentlessly looked to put its house in order in other respects, giving equal weighting to the women’s game and being fully inclusive and welcoming of LBGT participants.

Rugby has led the field recently in its approach to concussion injuries and player welfare and it goes out of its way to celebrate cultural differences with various ceremonies before games.

All this has been excellent, necessary, positive and progressive… and I would argue can be directly linked with the apartheid years. Rugby was so shamed by its long acquiescence that ever since it has been on a mission, subconsciously or not, to be on the right side of history on every other major issue.

Sometimes perhaps rugby even tries too hard, which I believe has been the situation with the Izzy Folau saga which drew to a conclusion this week with a substantial out of court settlement from Rugby Australia to their former full-back after months of litigation following his controversial tweets on sex and religion. There were also apologies from both parties.

Did Folau break his contract with the ARU by posting his views – which the vast majority, but not all, condemn – on his twitter feed? Yes, undoubtedly and disciplinary action of some sort was most certainly in order.

But did he break any law of the land and behave in a way that demanded summary dismissal under the existing employment legislation in Australia? Well the fact that the ARU lawyers finally caved in before the tribunal met would strongly suggest not. Or at least that they weren’t willing to test it.

Some have suggested that the outcome has left Australia Rugby with egg on its face, that all this somehow constiutes a victory for Folau. Not at all. You could perhaps argue Australia have been over-vigilant but, as we have already seen, rugby learned some time ago that over-vigilance is infinitely preferable to turning a Nelsonian eye. Long may that remain the case.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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