Banned rugby star Israel Folau plans to play for Tonga

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SYDNEY (AP)Banned rugby star Israel Folau is planning on making a return to international rugby league with Tonga, but the Rugby League International Federation had denied it gave permission for Folau to play.

Rugby Australia terminated Folau’s five-year contract in May after ruling he breached its code of conduct with his contentious social media posts. He has been a high-profile absentee from the ongoing Rugby World Cup in Japan.

A statement released by the Tongan National Rugby League chairman George Koloamatangi on Monday indicated the 30-year-old Folau and his younger brother, John Folau, would play in the Oceania Cup in New Zealand against Britain on Oct. 26 and against Australia on Nov. 2.

The statement said the Folau brothers had registered with the Tongan NRL and ”are eligible to play international rugby league fixtures.”

But the RLIF said they had not been formally asked to consider Folau’s return.

”The Rugby League International Federation is aware of a media release issued by Tonga National Rugby League stating that Israel Folau has been `approved’ by the RLIF to represent Tonga in international matches,” it said in a statement. ”That statement is incorrect. The RLIF has not been formally asked to consider this matter. The RLIF will not be commenting further on this situation at this stage.”

Folau is taking legal action against Rugby Australia, alleging restraint of trade over his ban from Super Rugby and international rugby union, the traditional 15-a-side game.

The National Rugby League, which governs the 13-a-side version of rugby in Australia, has previously said it would not re-register Folau because of his rugby union ban.

Israel Folau played for the Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos in the NRL. He represented Australia in rugby league before a stint playing Australian rules football and eventually rugby union.

Tonga coach Frank Endacott welcomed the potential selection of the Folau brothers for the international matches.

”These guys are great footballers and bring size, pace and skill to the team,” Endacott said. ”They will make a huge impact in the team and provide exciting attack options all over the park.

”This will be great boost to the internationals, and I can’t wait to see the crowd support that this will generate,” he said.

The Tongan NRL statement sparked immediate headlines in the Australian media, where Folau’s ban has polarized opinion.

In a social media post, Folau listed gay people among a group of sinners whom he said would face damnation unless they repented.

Folau, who was born in Australia to Tongan parents, had previously been warned after a similar post during Australia’s national debate over the legalization of gay marriage. Folau, who describes himself as a devout Christian, said he was referencing the bible.

Folau was an undisputed star in his 73 test matches for the Wallabies after joining the rugby union ranks in 2013. He has the record for most tries by any player in the Super Rugby tournament.

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