Israel Folau can be "one of the best in the world" despite controversial past

After almost three years away from rugby union, Israel Folau will come full circle and complete a controversial return to the sport for Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu in Japan's rebranded Rugby League One on Saturday.

Folau, 32, once held a lofty reputation as one of the most respected players in the world, but his image was tainted in 2019 after he aired homophobic views, suggesting "hell awaits" homosexuals if they did not "repent."

Sharing such dangerous ideology over Instagram led to the player being sacked by Rugby Australia, and he's since had short spells in rugby league with Catalans Dragons and the Southport Tigers in the Queensland Cup.

One would think such a prolonged absence from the 15-a-side game would have waned Folau's talents, but former Australia team-mate Liam Gill has backed the full-back to once again become a dominant force.

Gill, 29, will start at No. 8 for Shining Arcs when they travel to face Kobelco Kobe Steelers on Saturday, while Folau has been named in the No. 15 jersey for his Japanese debut.

“Izzy has just picked up where he left off,” Gill—who earned 15 Wallabies caps before leaving Australia in 2016—told Fox Sports.

“I dare say once he plays this season of the Japanese League One, he’ll be considered one of the best in the world again.

“He hasn’t really left anything behind in his time off.”

Folau previously signed on to play for another Japanese outfit, the NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes Osaka, in 2015 but ultimately left the club without playing an official game.

There's an even greater desire to ensure this attempt is a greater success, with Folau eligible to represent Tonga at the 2023 Rugby World Cup following a change to the sport's international eligibility laws.

It means the spotlight on Folau is brightening once again, with many fans aware that despite his volatile views, the player ranked among the most fearsome forces in rugby when at his peak.

Only three players have scored more than his 37 tries for Australia, and the prospect of linking up alongside the likes of Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa and Ngani Laumape in a new-look Tonga team should frighten foes.

Tonga have yet to seal their place in France next year, although it's anticipated that they should be one of the 20 nations competing.

“I never really had anything to do with what happened and I never really had too much time with him in the Wallabies because I was in and out quick,” Gill said when asked about Folau's unceremonious exit from Australia in 2019.

“But he was a lovely guy back then and he still is an incredibly lovely person.

“He just came in, went on as usual, gets along with everyone and is absolutely freakish on the field.

“Pens (former Waratahs coach Rob Penney) hasn’t addressed anything, (assistant coach) Matty Cockbain hasn’t needed to address anything either, so it’s just one of those cases where we’re pretty bloody thankful to have him in the team.

“He’s a lovely person. He lives in the same unit block as we do and he’s got a lovely family, so we’ve all just loved the fact he’s come here and got on with it and pretty excited to have him play the season with us.”

Folau has signed a two-year deal to play for the Shining Arcs, which would take him up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, by which point he'll be 34 years of age.

That being said, the usual perception of an appropriate retirement age might not apply to a player who may feel he has a lot of lost time to make up for.

Meanwhile, former Tonga captain Aleki Lutui has insisted Folau will be welcomed into the team should head coach and former Wallabies star Toutai Kefu proceed with plans to call up the controversial star.

“I think Tonga will welcome back Folau, especially as his parents are from Tonga. I think he will be proud to represent the country if he is given that opportunity,” Lutui told The Rugby Paper.

For any perceived shortcomings in his personal life, the three-time winner of the John Eales Medal—Australian rugby's equivalent to Player of the Year—still has his supporters.

Folau will be thankful for that support, too, as his profile inevitably grows once again in the build-up to France 2023, with Gill confident the fallen star is due to hit the ground running in Japan's League One.

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