It took Israel Folau just six minutes to make his presence more than felt in his debut match for the Catalans in the English Super League.
It was a proud return to the game for Folau, who was last year banned by Rugby Australia for his controversial views on homophobia that he has openly shared on social media.
Playing against Castleford in Perpignan, Folau struck when he collected a high kick from Josh Drinkwater to touch down and fellow Australian James Maloney’s conversion made it 12-0 in the early minutes.
The solid start followed on throughout the match, with Folau’s Dragons going on to take victory 36 to 18.
But it wasn’t without controversy and bitterly divided opinions.
While the 9000-strong crowd chanted “Izzy! Izzy! Izzy!” after the disgraced Australian star scored, a protestor wore a rainbow flag draped across her shoulders to the match and repeatedly refused demands to remove it.
Alison Grey was initially told it was a safety issue. The second time, she was informed it was against club policy, Fox News says.
Her brother captured one of the exchanges and posted it to Twitter.
This is my sister at the @catalansdragons Vs @CTRLFC game. She has been asked to remove her rainbow flag at homophobic @IzzyFolau debut. Absolutely disgusting. @SuperLeague @TheRFL @PeterSmithYEP pic.twitter.com/telN5j0jol
— Chris Grey (@chris_grey___) February 15, 2020
Another woman also sporting the rainbow flag was similarly ordered to hide the symbol of gay pride, with club officials admitting protest signs they were carrying had been confiscated.
The Dragons have been widely criticised for signing Folau. It’s even possible the French side could find itself in legal hot water over their infamous recruit.
Last week, Hull Kingston Rovers – a Dragons Super League competitor – put the Perpignan club ‘on notice’.
“I reserve my position to take proceedings v Catalans Dragons,” the BBC quoted Rovers owner and chairman Neil Hudgell as saying.
In an email, Mr Hudgell suggested action could be taken if a title sponsor withdrew, external investment was not secured or “quantifiable reputational damage is caused to the brand of Super League and its members”.
And pressure on the Dragons’ corporate backers is mounting, with Lord Robert Hayward, founder of the UK’s first all-gay rugby club, calling on sponsors to abandon the club.
Lord Hayward is demanding the Government pressure Catalans’ UK-based sponsors to dump the team.
“I’m hoping that the Government in their responses will encourage some of the sponsors to express their views to the Catalan Dragons,” Lord Hayward told the ABC.
“They need to do more than just put out a strong statement – I hope they feel obliged to withdraw their sponsorship,” he said, adding that
Dragons coach Steve McNamara has consistently stood by 30-year-old Folau, a line he followed in the post-match press conference.
— Sophie Walsh (@sophie_walsh9) February 15, 2020
“As an individual, I stand by the club statement that Bernard issued on the signing of Israel,” McNamara has said previously.
“We investigated a fair few players, Israel’s name was on that list and, having spent a lot of time speaking to him and understanding him a lot more and getting reassurances.
“We made a decision as a club that we would support Israel and give him another opportunity in our game.”
Silence is golden
Folau’s contract specifies that he make no controversial public statements, and he didn’t violate that edict while posing for selfies with fans after the game.
Rugby Australia sacked Folau in April last year for one Instagram post in particular. In August, Folau announced he was going to sue the organisation for $14 million in compensation.
The two parties reached a confidential settlement in early December, and Rugby Australia was forced to apologise to the player.
Folau hasn’t posted to Twitter or Instagram for 200 days.