Israel Folau’s future in Australian rugby is looking increasingly grim after a independent panel determined that the Wallabies superstar committed a “high level” breach of his contract.
The three-person panel of chair John West QC, Rugby Australia representative Kate Eastman SC and the RUPA-appointed John Boultbee have now retired to decide on Folau’s sanction following an epic code of conduct hearing in Sydney.
RA boss Raelene Castle issued Folau with a breach notice last month following his controversial social media posts about homosexuals and other sinners and threatened to tear up his four-year, $4 million contract.
The 30-year-old devout Christian took to Instagram to proclaim “hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”.
While Folau may yet be spared the sack, termination of his contract is now a possibility.
Had the panel deemed Folau’s breach of RA’s players’ code of conduct anything less than “high level”, the governing body would not have had the power to boot the three-times John Eales Medallist out of the game.
The best punishment Folau can now hope for is a suspension and/or a fine.
The sanction is not expected to be handed down for several days, with RA not offering a timeline on any decision.
Folau also has the right of appeal, a process that would involve a completely new three-person panel being selected.
Should he be sacked, Folau – Super Rugby’s all-time leading try-scorer and a 73-Test stalwart for the Wallabies – would be the first Australian athlete dismissed for expressing fundamental religious beliefs.
Even before it potentially reaches the courts, the Folau hearing has developed into one of the most drawn-out legal stoushes in Australian sports history.
The hearing stretched 22 hours over three days, with any hopes of a “common sense” settlement – as NSW Waratahs chairman Roger Davis had hoped for on Monday – were blown out of the water by Tuesday night’s sensational development.
Folau spent more than twice as long holed up at the hearing than he has played for the Waratahs in 2019.
RA initially anticipated all evidence being heard in one day, with Sunday also reserved if more time was needed.
The decision was expected to be handed down on Tuesday.
Instead, the hearing resumed at the offices of Herbert Smith Freehills in Sydney’s CBD on Tuesday after some of the brightest brains in the land spent the weekend arguing the complex case at RA headquarters.
As well as the extraordinary length of the hearing, the cost of the case is also mounting, with the two parties thought to have shelled out an estimated $300,000 on legal bills since Saturday alone.
Regardless of the panel’s ultimate decision, the expenses are almost certain to keep piling up.
Folau’s Wallabies teammate Quade Cooper – himself frozen out last year by Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn – was asked earlier on Tuesday if he could see any way back for the stood-down star.
“I’m not too sure – that’s something you would have to speak to (his Waratahs teammates) Bernard (Foley) and Nick Phipps and Michael Hooper and those guys about,” Cooper said, adding that he empathised with Folau’s flight.
“You feel for anyone who’s going through a difficult patch in their life.”