Wallaby superstar Folau to make Tonga debut

By RNZ.co.nz

Israel Folau’s four-year exile from Test rugby will end on Saturday when he starts for Tonga against Fiji in the Pacific Nations Cup.

Flying wing Folau played 73 Tests for Australia before being sacked in 2019 for posting homophobic messages on his social media account.

Israel Folau has recommitted to the NSW Waratahs and Wallbies until 2022

Israel Folau Photo: © Clay Cross / Photosport Ltd 2018

He will line up alongside former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa.

Two others switching are scrum-half Augustine Pulu and Fiji centre Seta Tamanivalu, who both played a handful of Tests for the All Blacks.

They have all taken advantage of new eligibility rules which allow players to represent a country where they have a birthright, providing they haven’t played Test rugby for three years.

Pacific Rugby Players Association co-founder and chief executive Hale T-Pole described the players who have switched allegiance as “pioneering” for the game in the cash-starved Pacific islands and predicted more would follow.

T-Pole told AFP the veteran quintet, were just the tip of the iceberg and several more former Test stars would become available for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa ahead of the November international window.

More will be eligible in time for next year’s World Cup in France, but he said much would hinge on how the teams perform on and off the pitch during the Pacific Nations Cup, which takes place over the next three weekends and also features an Australia A team.

T-Pole said the professionalism of the Pacific Nations would be a key factor in convincing others with overseas club contracts to commit to playing Test rugby

“I’m not saying we have to roll out the red carpet, but the three unions have got to do everything right,” he said.

“It all comes down to the experience that these fellas like Charles and Malakai have, and what they then say and do.

“If they go back with a good message of their experience in the environment, then a lot more will put their hand up and won’t sit around watching TV at the next international window.”

Fekitoa, raised as one of 14 children on the tiny island of Ha’apai, tweeted this week of his thrill at joining his new team-mates, four years after his last All Blacks Test.

“I am very proud to have been a part of the best team in the world but at the same time I want to contribute something great to Tonga, my country, my homeland and where my heart belongs,” he wrote.

World Rugby has long been accused of ignoring the financially poor Pacific islands, where talented players must move overseas to pursue professional careers.

T-Pole says governance of the game in the three biggest Pacific unions of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa is improving and the introduction this year of Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika into Super Rugby was an important change.

“World Rugby has always listened. It was more about us getting our act together with our governance,” he said.

“You can’t just turn around and say ‘we want this and this’ when, in house, everything is not aligned.

“We were struggling commercially with fans and sponsorship but it’s looking brighter for Pacific rugby. There’s a lot of good people out there who want this to work for us,” he said.

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