Israel Folau and Rugby Australia will go head to head in a trial in February 2020 if they fail to resolve a multimillion-dollar unfair dismissal case brought by the former Wallabies player and staunch Christian.
The issue came before the Federal Circuit Court in Melbourne on Tuesday for a directions hearing.
Chief judge Will Alstergren set new mediation for December 13, and encouraged the parties to settle their dispute. If that fails, they will proceed to a three to five-day trial on February 4.
The timeline means Folau will miss the Rugby World Cup, which is to be held in Japan from the end of September.
Folau’s legal team in Melbourne included Stuart Wood QC and George Haros. The star sportsman was not at the hearing.
Folau, 30, wants an apology, $10 million in damages and his contract reinstated by former employers Rugby Australia and the NSW Waratahs. He claims he was sacked on religious grounds following an April Instagram post about gay people going to hell unless they repented.
Rugby Australia terminated the star fullback’s $4 million contract in May, asserting that his social media post breached its policies.
“Israel Folau has today been issued a sanction directing termination of his playing contract for his breach of the professional players’ code of conduct,” Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle said.
The decision to sack Folau followed a two-day disciplinary hearing.
On Monday, Folau deactivated his social media accounts without explanation. They were reactivated a short time later.
Tuesday’s court hearing in Melbourne was video-linked to Sydney and came after the Fair Work Commission confirmed in mid-July that all attempts at mediation between the former Wallaby and Rugby Australia had failed.
Speaking outside court on Tuesday, Folau’s solicitor, Mr Haros, said an apology would “come a long way to resolving the dispute”.
“It’s been publicly acknowledged by Israel and his team that he still seeks that apology and that’s still very important to him,” Mr Haros said.
“Israel’s very forthright in his views and he’s an extremely strong at this stage of the proceeding.
Rugby Australia has applied for the case to be heard in Sydney or by the Federal Court of Australia rather than the Federal Circuit Court.
Its lawyers have also applied for documents filed during proceedings to remain confidential.
Mr Wood criticised the applications, saying they were attempts to delay proceedings, adding he wanted Judge Alstergren to be aware of “what’s going on in the background”.
“We are conscious that there are going to be attempts to further delay the rights of my client to have this matter quickly dealt with,” he said.
The allegation was denied by Rugby Australia lawyer Adam Hochroth, who said the matter wasn’t just an employment issue but an important matter of public interest better dealt with by the Federal Court.
Judge Alstergren replied he would not allow anything to delay the case.
If mediation is unsuccessful, the parties will return to court on December 17 for a directions hearing ahead of trial.