Nearly four years after he last played international rugby, Israel Folau is back playing under another flag.
Former Wallaby Israel Folau could be back on an international rugby field on July 2 after the 33-year-old was named in Tonga’s squad for the Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup qualifying.
Folau has been not played an international since Rugby Australia terminated his contract in 2019 following homophobic social media posts and he was forced out of the game.
But recent changes in World Rugby’s eligibility laws allowing players to make an international switch after 36 months of inactivity mean Folau, who played the last of his 73 Tests for the Wallabies in November 2018, is eligible again. Folau’s parents are from Tonga.
Tonga is scheduled to play their first international against Fiji on 2 July and coach Toutai Kefu, a Wallabies great himself, said Folau’s presence would be a huge factor for his team.
“He’s going to bring a lot of experience to the table,” Kefu told ABC Radio Australia.
“His presence is going to be one of the most exciting factors we’re looking forward to.”
Folau is playing club rugby for the Shining Arcs in Japan under former Waratahs coach Rob Penney, having also spent time with Super League side the Catalan Dragons after being banished from Australian rugby.
Kefu said he had been talking to Folau for some time about playing for Tonga, a dream that became a reality thanks to the eligibility rule change.
“It would have been at least a couple of years ago that we started having conversations about him possibly representing Ikale Tahi,” Kefu said.
“It was quite informal back then – it was just an informal chat – and then, as his three-year stand-down approached, when that was going to finish there was a possibility of him playing Sevens to qualify for us and he was open to that.
“But then, fortunately, they changed that rule in November and he didn‘t need to go through that route anymore. All he had to do was stand those three years down and he would qualify straight away.”
Folau made his international debut in 2013 and scored 37 tries for the Wallabies before his acrimonious exit.
He also made 96 appearances for the NSW Waratahs in Super Rugby and still holds the all-time try-scoring record with 60.