Rugby's extraordinary 12 months: Israel Folau, Typhoon Hagibis, Saracens & coronavirus
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 20/03/20 1:26pm
In these uncertain and unpredictable times, each and every sport around the globe has now been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
For rugby though, Covid-19-enforced postponements and suspensions are just the latest highly unusual and unprecedented events over the last 12 months.
From one of the sport's most high-profile players being sacked for latent, repeated and public anti-LGBT comments, to a Typhoon cancelling Rugby World Cup games, the premier club in Europe suffering enforced relegation and more, it's been a surreal 12 months for the game.
We start our look-back from April 2019, when Australia's Israel Folau - one of the most talented players to play the sport and a 2017 nominee for World Player of the Year - tweeted in response to Tasmania's decision to introduce gender-optional birth certificates: "The devil has blinded so many people in this world, REPENT and turn away from your evil ways."
Two hours after that, Folau posted on Instagram a picture reading "hell awaits" for "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators".
He included a lengthy accompanying message, part of which read: "Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent."
Such an outburst of hate was, unfortunately, not isolated either. Back in 2017, the legalisation of gay marriage in Australia was a topic at the very forefront of the country's everyday conversations. Folau tweeted his objections at the time.
I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions. but personally, I will not support gay marriage.✌❤🙏— Israel Folau (@IzzyFolau) September 13, 2017
While many at this point questioned the need for Folau to publicly share a view of intolerance, there was also a large group who saw his perspective as free speech which should be respected. Just seven months after his gay marriage stance caused consternation, however, the Wallaby sparked outrage by stating gay people will go to 'hell' - once again, on social media.
The wider response to this comment was far more negative and the back was summoned to meet the head of Rugby Australia, Raelene Castle. Despite the furore surrounding the situation, Folau - who at the time was in discussions regarding a new contract - was not formally disciplined or sanctioned by the organisation.
February 2019 saw him sign a lucrative new four-year contract, but neither that, nor the previous firm warnings directed his way deterred his April 2019 post.
It was at this point that Castle and her Waratahs equivalent Andrew Hore said in a joint statement they intended to terminate Folau's contract "in the absence of compelling mitigating factors". May 2019 saw Folau's termination confirmed.
A remarkable and unprecedented saga in the sport. And that wasn't the end of it either. Church sermons followed from Folau, denouncing homosexuality as a sin and the influence of the devil.
In November 2019, he even linked same-sex marriage and abortion to the devastating bushfires in Australia: "Look how rapid these bushfires, these droughts, have come in a short period of time. Do you think it's a coincidence or not? God is speaking to you guys." Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the remarks as "appallingly insensitive".
Then, legal proceedings began. Folau set up a GoFundMe page to pay for legal costs before it was shut down, and then sought $14m in compensation. In December 2019, after everything, the two parties came to a 'confidential settlement', likely worth millions to the former player.
By January 2020, Folau was back in professional sport, signing for French rugby league club Catalans Dragons in Super League. There's very little an athlete is not forgiven for in the professional era it seems.
While a wonderful tournament, Japan's 2019 Rugby World Cup descended into chaos in October as for the first time in the sport's showpiece history, World Cup games were cancelled - Typhoon Hagibis the cause.
England's Test with France in Yokohama - the deciding clash to determine the winners of Pool C - was one of the games slashed and confined to a 0-0 draw in the history books.
Other cancellations came as Pool B's New Zealand vs Italy in Toyota was halted - the Azzurri required a bonus-point success over the double reigning world champions, who they had never beaten in history, to stand a chance to progress.
As unlikely as that eventuality seemed, however, such an outcome was not fair on Italy. Namibia vs Canada, also from Pool B, was a third World Cup Test lost to cancellation.
As a consequence, each of the teams to progress to the last eight were affected by cancellations, either themselves or by potential opponents having longer rest times, etc. Undercooked, by far the more rested or more fatigued, it was no longer an even playing field in so many ways.
Indeed, England and New Zealand comfortably booked semi-final places, while France would have too having launched into a formidable position against Wales in Oita, only for Sebastien Vahaamahina to earn a straight red card and turn the Test.
World Rugby took the decision to break new ground by taking a World Cup to Asia for the first time. They also took the decision to hold it in the autumn as is customary, but in the middle of typhoon season.
Typhoon Hagibis was not a freak incident to have occurred at the most inopportune time. Japan is consistently hit by tropical cyclones at that very point in the year.
It's still near inexplicable that contingency plans, of which much was heard but little to nothing seen, were not properly put in place for such an eventuality.
Teams waited and built over four years for a World Cup only to have it altered by causes of which they could not control. It remains enormously controversial.
All of that is not to undermine the threat or dangers Typhoon Hagibis presented. Nationally, at least 98 lives were lost.
But how the cancellation of some matches was allowed to occur during one of the largest sporting events in the world, with zero apparent plan to keep the tournament going, was utterly bizarre. There was no movement of games to other, unaffected areas and stadiums, no delaying or bringing forward Tests to alternative days.
For many, it will forever be the World Cup of three lost matches. And while the cancellations did cast an indubitable shadow over the tournament's schedule, reproach should never be positioned at the feet of the Japanese authorities and their public.
World Rugby knew of plans to host the World Cup in Japan for 10 years. The decision to host in typhoon season and the unprecedented act to call off matches lies with them, and their seemingly futile or absent 'contingency plans'.
Saracens and the salary cap
Over the last decade, Saracens have clinched the Premiership title five times. Four of them have come in the last five years. They've lifted the European Cup three times.
In the 10 years, they've made the final of the Premiership on seven occasions, and the European Cup four times.
They have dominated the European game like no club before them. November 2019 then brought news many had suspected for years: Sarries had done so by breaching the Premiership's £7m salary-cap for three successive seasons in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.
The ensuing punishment was severe: a 35-point Premiership deduction and £5.36m fine. The club's actions constituted the biggest scandal, perhaps bar blood-gate, in the history of English rugby.
The punishment came after a nine-month investigation into arrangements between Saracens owner Nigel Wray and the club's players, including England World Cup stars Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola.
Wray and the club were found to have overpaid into Itoje's image rights company, to remain compliant in strict wage. The second row was also paid lump sums worth thousands of pounds for hospitality events there is no evidence he even attended.
Investments and interest-free loans were paid by Wray to the Vunipola brothers, scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth and to Chris Ashton.
Such manoeuvres allowed Saracens to retain their England internationals, while also continue to attract top-level overseas players. These were far more than mere clerical errors.
In January 2020, there was a further twist to Saracens' seemingly unending tale of woe.
Indeed, it was found the reigning European Cup and Premiership champions were substantially over the salary cap again this season (2019-20), to sit alongside their breaches of the previous three campaigns, and were not able to suitably bring down costs in time to fall in line.
As such, Premiership clubs presented two options: either be stripped of titles won and allow a full inquest, or face relegation to the Championship, regardless of where they finish in the table.
Saracens accepted relegation, before they were docked a further 70 points to ensure they would finish bottom of the table, with the break-up of their squad inevitable - the majority on permanent deals, some on loans.
An extraordinary turn of events.
Coronavirus postpones the Six Nations
And so to the most recent of several unforeseen and incredible situations.
The coronavirus pandemic in all saw the postponement of four Six Nations 2020 fixtures: Ireland vs Italy from Round 4, Italy vs England, France vs Ireland and Wales vs Scotland from Round 5.
The Premiership, PRO14, Top 14 and Super Rugby have been suspended, while all other domestic rugby in Britain has since been cancelled too.
Back in 2001, three Six Nations Tests were postponed - the cause then being an outbreak of the highly infectious livestock foot and mouth disease in Britain.
As a result, and due to the vital importance of the farming industry on the Irish economy, Ireland's three games against the home unions (having had Rounds 1 and 2 against Italy and France) were called off.
The tournament finished in April 2001, and it was not until the following September and October 2001 that the games were put on.
But these are different times - unparalleled in truth - and who knows how long sport - and life - will be interrupted this time around?
The current worldwide episode will be written about in history books of the future.
It's been an exceptionally strange 12 months for rugby in particular, however, with a string of truly unlikely and abnormal events.
How about Finn Russell - perhaps the most talented Scottish player in a generation (or several) - departing their camp because of reportedly drinking three beers, two weeks before the start of the Six Nations?
Such an occurrence was, of course, more likely a breakdown in relationship between Russell and head coach Gregor Townsend, but even still, it was another controversially odd incident at its core.
Or All Black legend Sonny Bill Williams code-hopping to Toronto, Canada of all places and becoming the highest-paid player from either sport?
Unpredictable becomes the new norm year-on-year it seems.