However that has shifted dramatically since the former Queensland and Australian rugby league representative was signed by Super League outfit Catalans Dragons.
While the majority of clubs are still opposed to Folau’s return, the NRL is bracing for support to continue to grow.
“All we hear is about inclusiveness, but it’s hypocritical to say we’re a game that accepts everyone when we won’t accept him or his beliefs,” one club figure said.
“If he agrees to strict rules and has learnt his lesson, why shouldn’t he be allowed to come back? He hasn’t committed a crime.”
There’s a growing realisation from head office that, should a club attempt to sign Folau, the NRL could have a legal battle on its hands if it tries to stand in the way.
The NRL has already sought legal advice on the matter but hasn’t had to act as clubs wait to see how he performs in his first season in rugby league since 2010.
If his first month in the Super League is anything to go by, it could be a difficult summer ahead for the NRL.
“The NRL apply a test that is used in legal services, the fit and proper person test,” Gadens sports lawyer Tim Fuller said.
“When they examine whether to register someone or not, they apply that test. When you look at people like Matt Lodge and Russell Packer and so forth, if you apply the same test to Israel Folau, how can they refuse to register him?
“The NRL might say he’s in breach of policy, but you can only be in breach if you are actually contracted to that sport. Those policies only apply to him from the moment he signs a contract with the sport.”
This column understands NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg was willing to meet Folau last year to gauge whether he would adhere to the game’s values if he sought a return. However former ARLC commissioner Peter Beattie blocked Folau’s path back to the NRL without much consultation with his executive.
New ARLC chairman Peter V’landys has been singing from the same hymn sheet since replacing Beattie in October, equally as determined as his predecessor to thwart any passage back to the NRL.
“The game is inclusive. The comments of Israel are not inclusive,” V’landys said in his first press conference last October.
“Israel has to understand he is a role model. As a role model, he has a duty. When I was at school and kids used to get bashed up because they were different, I used to go and defend them. I have no tolerance for people who put other people’s lives into violence or whatever.
“With due respect to Israel, young kids listen to it. He is a role model. Rugby league is inclusive. So I am not in any which way reversing or looking at the decision of Israel Folau.”
Catalans will be desperate to keep Folau but those close to him insist he has unfinished business in the NRL.
NRL CEO and Chairmen’s poll: Part 2
Would you support the return of Israel Folau to the NRL under strict conditions?
The verdict: It’s hard to ignore a growing trend of support for Israel Folau from certain NRL clubs. The game is now split about his potential return, however the majority are still backing the stance of ARLC commissioner Peter V’landys, who refuses to welcome the 30-year-old back to the competition.
Should all player third party deals be made public?
The verdict: Fans are fed up with a lack of transparency around third-party payments and it appears the clubs feel the same way. While the players wouldn’t like it, there is no doubt the publishing of all TPAs would ensure less scepticism from the fans in regards to the perception of certain teams’ salary caps.
Do you still believe in the NRL’s no-fault stand down policy?
The verdict: The NRL has shown the discretionary side of the no-fault stand-down policy this year, allowing the likes of Curtis Scott and Josh Reynolds (who has since had charges dropped) to play in the NRL. Last year the no-fault stand-down policy was enforced against Jack de Belin, Dylan Walker and Tyrone May. The Herald understands only the Dragons were opposed to the new rule when Beattie brought it in last year, and it still has the majority of support from clubs despite a slight increase in resistance highlighted in the poll.
Should the NRL allow Jack de Belin to play in the NRL in 2020 after sitting out an entire season under the no-fault stand down policy?
The verdict: The votes are almost identical to the previous question, with those backing the no-fault stand-down policy also satisfied to see De Belin sidelined until his matter is resolved in court. The NRL has showed no indication of backing down.
Would you support a transfer window(s)?
The verdict: The clubs are crying out for some structure around the circus that is the NRL player market. There is a strong push for at least one transfer window per year, with many clubs of the opinion there should be one in the middle of the season and one after the grand final. Clubs are also fed up with player agents, who in part one were identified as the second biggest issue the game faces.
Would you support a stand-alone State of Origin period?
The verdict: Clubs are willing for the NRL to shut down for a month to allow State of Origin to take centre stage. While it would help the clubs better deal with the taxing period on its players, the broadcasters may have something to say about it. The NRL has to consider all its stakeholders and alternative content arrangements if they listen to the clubs on this matter.
If you could sign any player in the NRL for this season (including those at your own club), who would it be?
The verdict: Despite many experts sharing the view that Sydney Roosters fullback and reigning Dally M medallist James Tedesco is the best player in the game, Manly’s Tom Trbojevic appears the most desirable to the clubs. The Sea Eagles No.1 polled almost a quarter of the votes, with his Roosters counterpart receiving just one vote.
Tom Trbojevic: 22.2%
Jason Taumalolo: 16.7%
Kalyn Ponga: 11%
David Fifita: 11%
Nathan Cleary: 11%
Cameron Murray: 11%
James Tedesco: 5.5%
Cameron Smith: 5.5%
Jake Trbojevic: 5.5%
Do you believe the NRL’s current compensation system for players injured in representative football is fair?
The verdict: In light of the potential season-ending injury to Bulldogs half Kieran Foran while playing for New Zealand last year, clubs are demanding a review of the current compensation system. The Bulldogs have been up in arms about the fact they only receive $350,000 compensation for a player on almost three times that amount. It appears the Bulldogs are not alone in their views.
Should the NRL prevent players from earning more money at other clubs if they walk out on their deals?
The verdict: Fed-up clubs want the NRL to prevent a repeat of the summer’s antics, when Ryan Matterson walked out on the Tigers to join the Eels on a bigger deal. The clubs want the NRL to cap potential earnings to ensure the new deal isn’t worth more than the deal they leave. They believe it will stop agents from encouraging players to force the clubs into releasing them.
What do you think of the length of the NRL season?
The verdict: Another issue that the broadcasters will have a huge say on, given the appetite for more content not less. The clubs are quite happy with the length of the season, despite a quarter of those polled of the opinion it is too long.
Too long: 25%
Just right: 75%
Too short: 0%
Has there been an improvement in the refereeing over the past 12 months?
The verdict: The NRL brought in a host of changes last season around the officials, however the majority of clubs say they haven’t noticed a change. Only 20 per cent believe there has been an improvement from the men and women with the whistle. Perhaps the drama around last year’s grand finals is still fresh in the mind of some clubs.
Still the same: 55%
Should the NRL persist with the Nines tournament?
The verdict: The NRL is expected to persist with the Nines next year. While the tournament didn’t draw large crowds in Perth, it rated well on Fox League and helped unearth some of the game’s brightest young stars. The majority of clubs are willing to back it, however it does have quite a few knockers concerned by the threat of injury so close to the start of the NRL season.
Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald