Israel Folau: How Hull greeted Catalans' controversial signing in first English appearance

By Andrew AloiaBBC Sport at the KCOM Stadium
Liam Spivey (far right) with friends in front of the KCOM Stadium
Liam Spivey with Hull Roundheads team-mates and players from Leeds' inclusive rugby club

"We are here. We are real. And we are not the imaginary people that you think will burn in hell."

That is what it meant to Hull FC supporter Liam Spivey when he held up a rainbow pride flag at the KCOM Stadium on Sunday to protest the arrival of hugely controversial Catalans Dragons player Israel Folau on English soil.

Folau is someone who believes that the "somewhere over the rainbow" is eternal damnation.

It was 10 months ago that Folau was sacked as an Australian rugby union international for saying "hell awaits" gay people and five weeks since he was controversially thrown a career lifeline by French rugby league club Catalans Dragons.

And yet that comment and his place in Super League remains the cause of anguish for some and elicits endless debate among many.

Outside the home of Hull FC, daughters disagreed with fathers about whether or not the 30-year-old should have been allowed to resume his sporting career in the English game and groups of friends were divided as they spoke about the "second chance" the Australian was handed.

The fact that Hull FC favourite Manu Ma'u spent 22 months in prison for grievous bodily harm earlier in his career is not lost on the home fans and what they feel redemption looks like. Rugby league has offered many second chances to those who have earned it.

The rights of religious expression, freedom of speech and freedom to be who you are without fear of discrimination were all also part of the pre-game conversation.

Underneath the rainbow flag that flutters permanently outside the 25,500-capacity ground, talk about fans bringing such flags into the ground is also lively after supporters at the Stade Gilbert Brutus in Perpignan were told to take them down when unfurled for Folau's first Super League appearance last month.

'Pantomime villain'

Israel Folau rises to catch a short restart
Israel Folau made a decisive contribution late on, collecting a short restart to set fellow Australian James Maloney up for the winning try

Spivey is at the Super League game with friends and team-mates from the Hull Roundheads, the city's first male inclusive rugby union side. He is also the group's allocated "flag guy", having brought along a backpack full of small hand flags - surplus stock from last year's Pride in Hull event - to share with anyone that wants one.

"It's about visibility," Spivey told BBC Sport.

"And that doesn't just mean waving a pride flag to say 'look over here, I'm gay'. No, holding the flag today is to help show that this is an inclusive sport and that everyone is welcome.

"Israel Folau is the pantomime villain today and will be for the rest of the season. He will be booed, he will get comments for every dropped ball, knock-on and mistake."

Sat in a the busy Dugout Sports Bar in the west stand in the hour before kick-off, Spivey's team-mate Liam Hammond talks about the importance of being seen.

"I've always felt welcome here anyway, but more so today because I'm here for a cause - a cause close to my heart because I'm gay myself," Hammond said.

"I appreciate that people have religious views but don't think people should fight hate with hate. It's important to unite behind the flag.

"Being seen could be the difference between a young fan out there or a young wannabe player that is struggling with their sexuality having confidence to live their life and not live in fear."

Ian Farrugia, one of a number of straight players to feature for the Roundheads, said his team-mates, his friends, the world's LGBTQ population have been shown "a complete lack of respect" by a "remorseless" Folau - a devout Christian who has defended his views as religious throughout.

"Freedom of speech allows him to say what he wants, but he is not free of consequence," said Farrugia.

"He lost his job with Rugby Australia and missed the World Cup. He has not repented and yet got his chance with Catalans when surely that must be the biggest thing when it comes to earning a second chance.

"There has been no apology. He lacks empathy for his fellow man."

'When do you draw the line?'

Pride flag flown at KCOM Stadium
A rainbow pride flag flies permanently outside the KCOM Stadium, home of Hull FC and Championship football club Hull City

Inside the stadium there are sizeable rainbow flags unfurled in each of the three opened stands as the teams walk out. The first boos of the day welcoming Folau rumble around the ground.

The flags, one by one, are pointed out as a curiosity. Talk about why they are there is instant. The crowd recognise the significance.

It is Folau's first touch of the ball that draws the loudest and longest chorus of boos. But on a day that the dual-code rugby international is largely a peripheral figure, there are few chances for a repeat.

On the field he is crunched in one tackle, and with a flick pass out to winger Lewis Tierney he gives a glimpse of his undeniable skill. And with that, there are again murmured conversations about Folau, but this time it's more about the player rather than the man.

At half-time, on the concourse that snakes around the south stand is stood a group of friends and family, made up of teenagers, middle-aged and older fans.

Folau was not on the agenda until it was broached, but his presence was quickly latched onto while they finished the last of their beers before again taking their seats.

"All the supporters had their say when he was booed," said Mike Canvess. "We have made him know what we think of him and his opinions and have then got on with our day.

"When you cross a line, when do you then draw the line? He is not here to spoil our day, we are here to enjoy the game. This is our team, we are coming to support our team and he is just another player."

In the final moments of the game, seconds after Marc Sneyd had given Hull what looked a decisive late lead with a drop-goal, Folau showed why is a more than that.

With a leap of an athlete that had a stint playing Australian rules football, Folau gathered the short restart. It proved a match-winning moment, helping create James Maloney's try that clinched victory.

'More traction in Wigan'

Outside the ground after the final hooter, the small group of Roundheads players meet up with members of Leeds' inclusive rugby side.

The feeling is one of deflation. The reception Folau, who posed for pictures with young fans after the game, got was seen as "a little subdued", but his largely anonymous contribution was seen as having something to do with it.

But worst of all, they were dealing with a Hull FC defeat after the Black and Whites let slip an 18-point lead.

"To lose like that makes it worse," Spivey said. "But at least he didn't have a great game."

Making a stand against Folau at the KCOM Stadium, no matter how small, was just the first chance people in England have had to confront the controversial player from the terraces.

It is when Catalans travel to Wigan later in March, a game given the status as 'Pride Day' that the group expects more noise and a bigger rainbow splash.

"There will be more traction there as Wigan are actively promoting it," said Farrugia.

"It something we could all look at going to as well. Folau will face a lot more of this during the season."

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