Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has said he was personally threatened by fans after vowing not to select Israel Folau over his “disrespectful” social media comments.
The deeply Christian player was sacked by Rugby Australia in May for posting on Instagram that “hell awaits” gay people and others he considers sinners.
His firing proved hugely divisive and the star fullback, who played 73 times for the Wallabies, is pursuing court action for unfair dismissal and restraint of trade with a hearing set for next February.
“People were saying all sorts of stuff,” Cheika told the Sydney Morning Herald from the Wallabies’ training base in Japan ahead of the World Cup, in an interview published Saturday.
“Just threats I was getting; people on the street, some to my face, a couple at some games. It was just crazy stuff.”
Folau’s highly debated comment followed a similar row last year, when Cheika was reportedly instrumental in fighting to give him a second chance.
But when he aired his controversial views again Cheika was less conciliatory, ruling out picking him for the Wallabies because “the team is king” and when playing for Australia “we represent everyone”.
The coach’s stance did not go down well with some fans. While many were outraged by Folau’s views, others, including the Christian lobby, defended his right to free speech.
Cheika said his dispute with Folau was not personal and he holds nothing against him.
“I’m not disappointed in the individual because if that’s what he believes, and that’s where his passion is, I will never tell someone to hide it,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say I’m responsible for what’s happened. It’s just life. But I had to do what was needed for the team.”
There were reports when the row exploded that it had split the Wallabies dressing room, with some unwilling to take the field with Folau while others – fellow Polynesians who are equally religious – believing their faith was under attack.
But Cheika denied any division within the squad.
“We had to make some hard decisions. But [claims of a split] was the opposite of the truth. And that’s the fundamental thing about great teams: they trust each other, they’re united when it’s really tough.
“And I think it’s shown to be a total untruth with the way this team has played this season. It’s been disproved by the spirit and team camaraderie that’s been shown.”
Australia, who lost the 2015 final to New Zealand, open their World Cup campaign against Fiji on September 21.
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