Written by Stuart McLennan
When rugby league’s critics point to the regressive attitude of a sport caught up in nostalgia and old men’s memories, it is often the ‘flat capper’ fans of clubs along the M62 corridor in England’s northern counties that bear the brunt of the sledging.
These are the clubs and fans that have rightly or wrongly inherited a reputation for not being receptive to newcomers. Those ‘newcomers’ have shifted in origin from the capital London to French clubs across the channel and now the North American invasion led by Toronto Wolfpack, with others ready to slide in on their coat tails.
It may have surprised those same detractors that there has been a backlash ‘up North’ against French club Catalans Dragons signing the controversial and outspoken Israel Folau to a 12 month contract.
Catalans ignored the advice of Super League officials in signing Folau. Chief executive Robert Elstone admitted on the Super League’s in-house ‘Inside Super League’ show that a mistake had been made: “I had a few sleepless nights on it. I think we came to the wrong conclusion,” he said.
Super League clubs voted at a meeting last week to implement measures that gave them more power to veto controversial signings in future.
Fox Sports reported that Liam Claffey, the general manager of second-tier club the Sheffield Eagles, said he would prefer the sport stand up and fight against Folau’s registration in a potentially costly court battle and be left “financially bankrupt” instead of being “morally bankrupt”.
Before their game with Catalans was postponed Wakefield confirmed their next two home games against Catalans and Warrington would be celebrations of inclusivity, featuring their Physical Disability, Learning Disability, reserves and women’s teams.
Wigan has already designated Catalans’ visit in March a ‘Pride Day’ celebration of LGBTQ+ communities.
Some clubs have threatened legal action should the signing have a detrimental impact on sponsorship and income streams.
While Catalans have said that Folau has returned to his ‘first love’ in rugby league, it was pretty clear that he was running out of options to secure another healthy contract after switching to AFL and rugby union post rugby league.
The outside back is set to make his debut for the Dragons against Castleford this weekend.
No doubt Folau is a class player and a talented athlete that has proven himself in the NRL, Origin and international arenas.
Ironically, his controversial signing might be the catalyst for a more inclusive environment around the fields of Wigan, Warrington and Wakefield.