The Tonga Ikale Tahi national rugby union side has announced a strong side for 2022, which includes recalls to former Wallaby Israel Folau, and former All Black Charles Piutau, as well as others who can remold the Pacifica side’s rugby future.
Finally able to make the selection of several former Internationals, Tonga has brought in Augustine Pulu and Malakai Fekitoa too. All are available after they all completed World Rugby compulsory ‘stand down’ periods from their previous national teams. And that will be a natural boost to the Ikale Tahi, as they seek Rugby World Cup qualification.
Announced ahead of the rejuvenated Pacific Nations Cup 2022 series that includes Australia A, Fiji, and Samoa. Three tough clashes, before an all-important Rugby World Cup (RWC) qualifier on July 23. That opposition is still to be confirmed – as the Asian Rugby Championship is still being contested – yet the best build-up for Tonga Ikale Tahi is to face a premier side like Fiji, who are close to being judged now as a Tier One-level nation.
Yet for the positives of bringing in the dozens of International caps that these newly minted Tongan representatives bring, it is the fact that Folau has returned from his widely expressed condemnation after homophobic social media posts in 2019. Now his resumption to International duties has been authorized by head coach Toutai Kefu, and the reaction has been both good and bad.
Tonga Ikale Tahi squad announced with Israel Folau and Charles Piutau
With the ability to select newly eligible names like Charles Piutau (All Blacks, Blues, Wasps, Ulster, Bristol Bears), Malakai Fekitoa (All Blacks, Highlanders, Toulon, Wasps, Munster), Augustine Pulu (All Blacks, Chiefs, Blues, Hino Red Dragons), they all bring their combined experience in domestic professional leagues, as well as representation for New Zealand. Now, given their opportunities to pull on the red shirt of the country of his birth, Fekitoa and the former All Blacks can aim toward making the RWC2023 by helping their new countrymen to win qualification.
🇹🇴 TONGA SQUAD
Former All Blacks Charles Piutau & Malakai Fekitoa have been named alongside former Wallaby Israel Folau.
— Tight Five Rugby (@TightFive_Rugby) May 27, 2022
Tonga Ikale Tahi has made the decision to invite 73-cap Israel Folau to resurrect his time on the World Rugby stage. Since losing his court case against Rugby Australia, he has kept a low profile. After making 96 appearances for New South Wales, the league convert recently resumed his career with the Shining Arcs. That gives him the conditioning required for first-class rugby. But what is unknown is, how the rugby world will react to seeing the rugby pariah.
Will all be forgiven? Most likely not. You cannot force religious beliefs that are counter to acceptable social media conduct.
Has time passed that would allow fans to accept Folau back on an International rugby field? To a degree, the individual has paid a heavy price. His career has plummeted, that is something that cannot be brought or redeemed entirely. Some repair might be found in playing well for his heredity nation during the 2022 Pacific Nations Cup. That is the best answer, though, in the meantime, social media and commentary are following the Tongan squad’s announcement.
Pride community reacts to Folau’s return to International game
While judged on his rugby skills by selectors, the general public has a different idea on how this redemption is accepted, or not.
We are devastated to see the return of Israel Folau. There should be no place in our game for people who have unapologetically said and done the things Folau has done. @WorldRugby has work to do when it comes to protecting LGBTQ people in the game 🏳️🌈🏉https://t.co/L3fPOq658q
— QuinsPride (@QuinsPride) May 27, 2022
As a person, past deeds cannot be singularly undone. His remarks, his public statements are engrained in the minds of the majority. And even if Folau were to want to explain how he feels personally, few will be prepared to listen. So expect interviews to be few and far between, with limits on questions bound to be requested by the Tonga Ikale Tahi media manager. How well journalists and reporters accept any terms or pursue a line of questioning that matches public opinion, is hard to say.
Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau coming back to international rugby is most excellent.
What I can’t understand is why Israel Folau, a vile homophobe is coming back. Extremely toxic. Not setting the right example for international rugby.
— Rebellia #GetIntoRugby (@darthdevi) May 27, 2022
The interest in his return could overshadow a lot of the goodwill with which rugby fans hold Tongan rugby. Their league team is always seen as the underdog, and the men’s rugby team has a good reputation; holding a historic 19–14 victory over France, yet their seeding within the Pacific nations group is well below Fiji and Samoa. So this latest series around the July test window will serve to help the side to aim toward a ninth Rugby World Cup appearance. By choosing Israel Folau, it will take some attention away from the groups efforts but, his place might just be the increase in quality football skills needed to compete against the likes of Australia A and their eventual RWC qualification opposition.
Hey @WorldRugby remember this ? Tonga Rugby just selected Israel Folau who still has Homophobic posts on his Instagram to play rugby.
Please let us all know how you are going to handle this . Thanks pic.twitter.com/mwZZ0ZkNYa
— mrRugby (@MRrugbyworldcup) May 27, 2022
World Rugby should make a statement on the matter, though it will support the process of eligibility, and will not participate in the public debate over the Australian player’s ideals. The sport should not look to change any person’s self-belief. But what they can enforce are standards and acceptable practices from the unions that it represents. From there, Tonga will also need to look at its player contracts, to ensure that any views held by Folau are not reflected in the union’s actions or public statements.
Keep it on the field, and many rugby fans will just focus on the match outcome and how well the likes of Folau and Piutau – who has had to wait the longest time to play International rugby again – for their opportunity to ‘pay it back’ to their cultures and heritage.
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