Sir Michael Jones, the former All Black and a newly elected board member of New Zealand Rugby, says he feels sorry for fellow Christian Israel Folau - but disagrees with the Wallabies' fullback's stance on homosexuality.
Speaking after New Zealand Rugby's annual general meeting today, Jones said when asked about Folau's controversial social media posts about "gays going to hell" that for him rugby was a game of inclusion and that was true of his faith too.
"I do know Israel and he's a good man," Jones said. "He's got a good heart and he's got a strong faith. He's a friend and so my heart goes out to him too at this time.
"At the same time, in terms of my faith, it's very much a faith built on love and grace. There are members of my family in those communities and we love them… I'm sure Israel has that too because we come from diverse families.
"For me being able to express yourself is important but [so is] doing so respectfully."
Jones, 53, played 55 tests for the All Blacks in a stunning career in which he effectively changed the way openside flankers played.
Voted on to the NZ Rugby board after being nominated by the Tasman union, Jones, who was knighted last year, was an athletic marvel on the field and had a quiet dignity off it. His playing career was limited by his refusal to play on Sundays due to his faith.
Jones added: "Rugby continues to be a game of inclusion. Every Kwi can feel they can be a part of this whanau.
"It has to be a place where no one is left behind. That's important to me personally."
Jones, who headed off Dame Annette King in replacing outing member Glenn Wahlstrom on the 12-person board, was involved in last year's "respect and responsibility" panel put together by New Zealand Rugby in the wake of several off-field controversies involving attitudes towards women.
He added that one of the challenges the game faced was the "disengagement of young Kiwi Europeans" from the game in Auckland, recently revealed by the New Zealand Herald.
He said: "There are a multitude of challenges and complexities… hopefully, I can contribute to that."
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