Israel Folau’s new life before Super League debut
Israel Folau has found a perfect new life in the south of France as he tries to put his social media controversy behind him.
But he has revealed that he almost gave away the game completely as the pressure of his sacking by Rugby Australia and his unfair dismissal court case came down to bear.
A smiling, fresh faced Folau was due to play his first game of rugby league in a decade this morning (4am AEDT Sunday).
The 30-year-old has joined fellow Australians James Maloney and Josh Drinkwater at the Catalans Dragons, a club in the UK Super League.
His former teammate Greg Bird is also a coach there and they have made him feel at home, which is away from the spotlight that has followed him during his career and intensified after his anti-gay Instagram post.
"I haven't played 13-a-side for 10 years, so I am also pretty nervous. But the environment is favourable, between the staff and the players, so that I can give my best," Folau said.
"I am here to be competitive, to play rugby and be consistent with my performances for the team. It's great to come back in a new team environment and to find a training routine with the others, but the most important thing is to give the best for my team."
Folau said he considered quitting professional sport amid the fallout of his $14 million lawsuit against Rugby Australia.
Watch the 2020 NRL Nines tournament LIVE & On-Demand on KAYO. New to Kayo? Get your 14-day free trial & start streaming instantly >
"Yes of course I thought about ending my career and to do other things," the ex Wallaby said in an interview with Perpignan newspaper L'Independant.
"I thank the president and my coach for this opportunity they have given me. It's like a new start for me and I am very excited to return to the sport in which I became known."
The Catalans Dragons on Saturday unveiled a charity green and gold jersey to raise money for the Australian bushfire relief appeal.
The shirts, which were being sold for $65 AUD, will go to support those who lost their homes in the blazes.
Folau, who was not included in the photograph to promote the shirts, had been criticised for suggesting the fires were because of Australia's support for same sex marriage.
Folau trained strongly during a short session at Stade Gilbert Brutus in Perpignan on Friday night Australian time.
Final teams were due to be announced at 11.30pm Australian time on Saturday, with the game to start at 4am Sunday AEDT.
The Perpignan-based Catalans Dragons, which is two hours drive east of Barcelona, is one of two international teams in the UK Super League.
The working class town has a pretty historic centre with stone buildings, while the beach of Canet Plage is 15 minutes away and the snow capped Pyrenees mountains are an hour's drive inland.
It's the best of both worlds, professional sport but without the hassle of dozens of cameras at every training session.
English speaking players can tune out because the newspapers are in French and they cannot understand what's being said about them on the television sports shows.
News Corp Australia spotted Bird and Maloney having lunch with their partners in Canet Plage early on Saturday Australian time.
Folau has missed almost a year of rugby because of the fallout of his Instagram post that said "hell awaits gay people".
But Bird said he would be fit enough to make an impact.
"He's a natural, I think he's going to play," he said.
Maloney said there had been "no issues" since Folau arrived two weeks ago.
"He's a good player, a quality player," he said.
Ben Pomeroy, who plays with the Catalans reserve side, said: "He's going to kill it."
The beachfront along Canet Plage turns into a strip of outdoor bars during the summer months as tourists flock to Costa Brava, making it the ideal place to socialise.
Folau's wife Maria has joined him at the club after finishing her netball career and standing by him during the controversy.
There has been a backlash to Folau's recruitment, with rival Super League clubs demanding that Catalans pay compensation if sponsors pull out because of his views.
None have to date.
Jean-Loup Thevenot, of gay rights group LGBT+ 66 in Perpignan, said he was disappointed with Folau's arrival.
He had invited Folau and the club to visit the group's headquarters to discuss the issue, but they declined, he said.
"We never restrict anyone to express their ideas, but we suggested the club and Folau to meet us and discuss but both of them said they didn't want to," Thevenot said in a translated interview.
They had meetings with rugby union clubs in the region about homophobia, he added.
"In the end the arrival of Folau is going to help us because we can talk and create some reaction," he added.
More than 9000 fans were expected to see Folau run out with Catalans for the clash against the Castleford Tigers.
The Dragons have had an interrupted start to the year, with storm Ciara in the UK forcing the cancellation of their round two clash against Wakefield Trinity last week.
They will be hoping Folau can make an immediate impact.