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Tonga embroiled in rugby controversy

Former Wallaby star Israel Folau is set to return to international rugby after being named Friday in Tonga’s squad for their World Cup qualifiers, three years since his sacking by Australia.

Former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa have also been included in the squad following changes to World Rugby’s eligibility rules.

The 73-Test Folau, who is of Tongan descent, had his contract with Rugby Australia terminated in 2019 after posting homophobic messages on social media.

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The devoutly Christian Folau returned to rugby union last year and has been playing in Japan for the Shining Arcs, coached by former Waratahs mentor Rob Penney.

Six months ago a pathway back to international level opened up when World Rugby changed its rules, allowing players who had not played a Test for three years to switch nations and represent the country where a parent or grandparent was born.

Folau, a three-times Wallabies player-of-the-year and Super Rugby’s all-time top try scorer, is “going to bring a lot of experience to the table”, Tonga coach Toutai Kefu told ABC Radio.

Former Wallaby star Israel Folau is set to return to international rugby after being named Friday in Tonga’s squad for their World Cup qualifiers. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

“His presence is going to be one of the most exciting factors we’re looking forward to,” said Kefu.

“He has a whole new set of skills that we haven’t had before.”

The 33-year-old Folau believes the new eligibility rule could be a game-changer for Pacific Island teams.

“It’s only going to raise the standard across the board of world rugby and strengthen those Tier Two nations,” he told AFP in a recent interview.

“It’s going to strengthen Tonga, it’s also going to strengthen Samoa, Fiji — all those guys will be available to represent their nations.”

Fekitoa, who played 24 Tests for the All Blacks between 2014 and 2017 and now plays for Munster in Ireland, was born in Tonga and moved to New
Zealand for school.

Piutau, who played 17 Tests until 2015 and now plays for the Bristol Bears, was born in New Zealand to Tongan parents.

Tonga play Samoa over two legs in a 2023 World Cup qualifier in neutral New Zealand on July 10 and 17.

© Agence France-Presse

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