'Not yet forgotten': Israel Folau scandal hangs over Wallabies' World Cup tilt

The Wallabies side to take on Fiji in their Rugby World Cup opener will reflect two years of turmoil - most notably the scandal that resulted in Israel Folau’s sacking.

Two years of drama will be highlighted when Michael Cheika names his side for their Test against Fiji on Saturday.

Cheika is set to go close to the team who stunned the All Blacks 47-26 in Perth last month, unquestionably their best performance in the four years since reaching the last Rugby World Cup final.

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That 2015 team has undergone an upheaval, most significantly in the last two seasons as results dived. Last year they crashed to an unacceptable four win-nine loss return.

A host of players who started Australia's most recent clash with Fiji, back in June 2017, have either been dropped or are in Japan but no longer ranked a starting player.

Of that team who outclassed the Fijians 37-14 in Melbourne, only captain Michael Hooper and prop Allan Alaalatoa shape as near-certainties to be included in Cheika's run-on XV named on Thursday.

Israel Folau at his fair work commission hearing. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The most glaring absentee from the team who last played Fiji is Folau, embroiled in court action against Rugby Australia following his high-profile dismissal this year.

Folau was unstoppable against the Pacific islanders, scoring two trademark tries - one from a spectacular high-ball leap and the other via a scything 50m run - emphasising how much he could be missed in Japan.

Experienced pair Bernard Foley and Will Genia were the starting halves and are options for Cheika this week but Christian Lealiifano and Nic White appear to have their noses in front.

The biggest head-scratcher is the back row, where David Pocock's return could threaten the place of powerhouse blindside flanker Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

Cheika and fellow-selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O'Connor must weigh up the merits of Pocock's relentless breakdown presence and leadership versus the raw physicality and lineout qualities of Salakaia-Loto.

Right wing is another unstable position. Reece Hodge wore No.14 in Perth but Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dane Haylett-Petty are options.

Michael Cheika talks to his squad during a Wallabies training session. (Image: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Spectre of Folau still hangs over Wallabies

Cheika admitted last week that he was personally threatened by fans after vowing not to select Folau over his "disrespectful" anti-gay comments.

The deeply Christian player was sacked in May for posting on Instagram that "hell awaits" gay people and others he considers sinners.

"People were saying all sorts of stuff," Cheika told the Sydney Morning Herald from the Wallabies' training base in Japan.

"Just threats I was getting; people on the street, some to my face, a couple at some games. It was just crazy stuff."

Cheika’s admission showed how the Folau drama is still hanging over the Wallabies’ heads.

There’s no doubt the players will still be thinking about the fact they’re missing their main strike weapon.

Should they suffer any unexpected losses those thoughts will almost certainly come to the fore.

“You could not blame a player for wondering whether the Wallabies would be a better team with Folau in it and whether they would have more chance of winning the World Cup, even if the thought was at the back of the mind,” wrote Bret Harris for the Guardian on Tuesday.

“If the Wallabies perform disappointingly at the World Cup, Folau will become the biggest what-if story at the tournament, re-igniting debate over Rugby Australia’s handling of the issue.

“Whether the Wallabies win the World Cup or not the threats and abuse over Folau’s sacking will most likely continue at least until the matter is resolved in court or quite possibly well beyond that. Folau may be gone, but he has not yet been forgotten.”


Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White, Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (capt), David Pocock, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Allan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu, Scott Sio. Res: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Toomua, Will Genia, Jack Dempsey, Adam Coleman, Taniela Tupou, James Slipper, Folau Fainga'a.

with AAP