Former All Blacks wing Va'aiga Tuigamala has spoken about his sympathy for Israel Folau and why he hopes the Wallabies fullback, whose rugby future remains in limbo, represents Australia at this year's World Cup.
Tuigamala, a proud and high-profile Christian during his long playing career, said he hoped Folau's views on gays and transgender people posted on social media which have seen his Rugby Australia employers seek to sack him after a previous warning, could be put into "perspective", saying mistakes have been made on both sides.
The 30-year-old Folau continues to be locked in legal talks with Rugby Australia in Sydney. His defence is based around free speech and the fact his views are taken directly from the Bible, while Rugby Australia's is that, in saying gays and other minorities were "going to hell" if they didn't repent, Folau has brought the game into disrepute.
It is an issue as divisive as any in the history of the game, with players around the world, including England's Billy Vunipola, supporting Folau's stance – and receiving an official warning from the Rugby Football Union as a result – and more recently Tonga coach Toutai Kefu, a former Wallaby, saying he "100 per cent" stood by Folau.
The now 49-year-old Tuigamala, who played 41 tests for the All Blacks and 22 for Manu Samoa, contacted the Herald to say he had followed the Folau issue closely and felt the high-profile player was right to stand up for what he believed in.
Unfortunately, it is a controversy that will not be resolved regardless of whether Folau's contract is ripped up or not and a worrying side-note for Tuigamala is the impact it could have on the World Cup in Japan which kicks off in September.
"As a fellow Christian, you've got to commend the guy for standing firm for his beliefs," Tuigamala told the Herald . "We live in a world where we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
"What we need to do is put things in perspective. He said something that offended a lot of people in the gay community. I read the whole thing from start to finish and I read it in its context.
"Even himself, he said he's a sinner. We all are. We are going to offend people with what we say whether we believe in God or not. I think we need to be sensible and put things in perspective.
"I can sympathise with those who feel offended but I totally understand Folau's position. I think Rugby Australia have made a mistake with the way they have handled this."
Tuigamala agreed freedom of speech didn't include the right to "defame or make inflammatory comments", but "if you look at Israel's comments… he was quoting a Bible scripture. I know from my experiences, there were many times when my fellow players would blaspheme and use the Lord's name in vain. But I'm not one to go around and whack their heads and say that's offensive to me".
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When asked how Rugby Australia could have handled the issue better, Tuigamala replied that the organisation had to realise everyone had different views. In terms of individual contracts, he said, "they must realise that one size doesn't fit all.
"It takes all sorts of players to make a rugby team – whether you're an atheist, a believer, a non-religious person, gay or non-gay, you know? I think sometimes we can overdo it. I think Israel in his own way has learned some of these lessons. If anything, it's given us an open dialogue to discuss these issues because they're real and they're not just rugby issues.
"Banning people for this or that is quite unfair because at the end of the day Israel is a rugby player and he should be judged on his talent on the field. If anything, I think it's in the best interests of Australian rugby to keep Israel in mind for the World Cup. We've got the biggest show for our sport coming up in the next few months."
When asked whether Rugby Australia had a duty to provide a welcome and safe environment for all, regardless of their sexuality and beliefs, Tuigamala said: "I don't think it will drive people away… I hope Israel's comments will not deprive them of taking up the game. I think if anything we have to look at the positives and it's an open forum for people to speak up and people have the right to do that. Just as people have been offended and have taken to social media to condemn Israel, the same can be said for Israel being able to speak up for his beliefs."
Tuigamala, a blockbusting and entertaining outside back known as "Inga the Winger" during his 10-year test career, said he had gay friends and had never judged them.
"It is complex… but hopefully we can talk about it and I hope people are mature enough to see both sides of the argument. At the end of the day he's a rugby player and rugby players do make mistakes from time to time."