'Failed as a role model': Ex-teammate hits out at Folau

Retired Wallabies winger Drew Mitchell has condemned former teammate Israel Folau for failing to think beyond his religious beliefs as the furore over the Waratahs star's views continues.

Folau has been criticised left, right and centre by rugby figures around the world after he escaped Rugby Australia (RA) sanctioning for sharing anti-gay messages on social media.

Much of the noise has come from New Zealand, to the point where even the All Blacks' official Facebook page shared a thinly veiled message.

But Mitchell, who played alongside Folau at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, is one of few Australians to speak out against the former NRL and AFL player.

"We have a responsibility as a role model and you don’t get to choose who you’re a role model for," Mitchell said on Fox Sports.

"Whether it’s to people who have the same belief systems or faith that you share (or different), we have the capacity to be role models for anyone.

"In my opinion, he’s failed in this instance in his responsibility as a role model because I don’t think he’s been consciously aware of the impact that he could have had on everyone.

Folau (L) played alongside Mitchell (R) for the Wallabies. Pic: Getty

"There could be people at home, like we’ve said before, that are struggling with finding themselves and expressing themselves and being comfortable in that and all of a sudden the cool rugby guy that they watch on TV saying these type of things would, I suggest, set them back.”

Folau, whose parents are Tongan and grew up a mormon, had previously spoken out against same-sex marriage ahead of Australia's postal vote last year.

Mitchell's comments echo those of All Blacks star TJ Perenara, who specifically noted mental health concerns in the Maori and Pacific Islander communities.

"As professional rugby players, whether we like it or not, we are role models for a lot of young people. Notably, young Maori and Pasifika people," he wrote on Twitter this week.

"You don't need to look far to know that young Maori/PI are overrepresented in youth suicide statistics and, as I understand it, even more so when you look to those who are part of the Rainbow community. Comments that cause further harm cannot be tolerated."

Welsh international referee Nigel Owens, who came out publicly more than 10 years after attempting suicide in his 20s, hoped Folau would learn to put aside his religious beliefs.

"That's what I wish people would think about and the way they convey their opinions," Owens said.

"I wish they would try and understand that everybody's different. Judge me and other gay people – judge them on the content of their character, not their sexuality."

Folau's RA contract expires at the end of 2018 but, despite NRL figures saying they would welcome him back into the code, he is expected to re-sign ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.

Multicultural Mental Health Australia www.mmha.org.au.

Local Aboriginal Medical Service details available from www.bettertoknow.org.au/AMS