With four months until the World Cup, the forces of Australian rugby are uniting. An exciting crop of players were taken into camp last month, fresh coaching staff were unveiled this week, there’s a raft of new sponsors in the wings and the code’s leaders are spruiking and recruiting with cash in the bank. Winning teams are built on such foundations.

Four years ago, it was a very different story. Rugby was a hot mess of explosive headlines and warring factions, within the team and the administration. The code had become a public battlefield of ideologies waged on religious, sexual, financial, legal and social fronts.

In the eye of this hurricane was Israel Folau – rugby star, Christian poster boy and fire-starter.

An NRL prodigy and Australian Rules experiment before becoming a Wallaby wunderkind, Folau was for a decade considered one of the greatest athletes of his generation. But he became the nation’s greatest pariah in 2018-19 when he went public with hardline religious views, offending many with his social media posts claiming gay people were hell-bound.

Folau’s rise and fall is charted in a powerful two-part documentary, called Folau, screening on ABC TV this Thursday 18 May and 25 May. Featuring revealing interviews with Folau’s coaches, teammates, spiritual and legal advisers, it is not a sports documentary. Rather it tells a strange and tragic tale of how a high-profile sportsman made himself into a political and religious football.

“Ultimately it’s a very sad story,” director Nel Minchin admits. “It cost [former Rugby Australia CEO] Raelene Castle and [ex-national coach] Michael Cheika their jobs, derailed the Wallabies’ 2019 World Cup campaign, cost millions of dollars in legal fees and bad press, and left a lot of innocent people cowering in a corner for all the hate speech it unleashed.”

Andre Afamasaga

But it is a story that needs to be told, and Minchin thinks now, four years on from Folau’s termination as a Wallaby, is the time. “I don’t want to reopen old wounds – we’ve taken so much care and time to achieve the opposite,” she says. “But the issues this case brought into the light are even more relevant today so it’s time to revisit the firestorm and have the conversation.”

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Folau brings together a diverse cast of characters caught in the crossfire of a saga that played out against the backdrop of 2017’s same-sex marriage debate, the leadup to the 2019 World Cup in Japan and Scott Morrison’s “miracle” federal election win the same year. Most crucially, it explores the deep faith of the Pacific peoples who now make up a reported 46% of rugby union and NRL playing ranks.

Current Wallaby Samu Kerevi and former Wallaby Toutai Kefu speak of their support for Folau, not endorsing the polarising sentiments of his posts but defending his right to free speech. They explain Rugby Australia’s lack of consultation with Pacific-born players before backing the yes vote, a misstep Manly Sea Eagles replicated last year in their pride jersey debacle.

Folau is of Tongan ancestry, a people whose life revolves around family and faith. In the past, many Pasifika tribes revered those of fluid sexuality able to move between men’s and women’s business, exhibiting physical and emotional strength. The arrival of Christian missionaries changed that and the exile of LGBTQ+ First Nations people followed.

To be a queer, Christian Pasifika man is a vortex, which Minchin captures with moving interviews with that community, including Christian pastor Andre Afamasaga and Telly Tuita, an artist from Folau’s home suburb of Minto. Dan Palmer, the only “out” Wallaby and the new Australian lineout coach, speaks compellingly of his struggle as a closeted man in a rigidly straight sport.

Nel Minchin and Magda Szubanski smiling

The name Israel means “wrestles with God” in Hebrew and Folau embodied that prophecy. At first his physical gifts hid a naive view of the world where money, women and alcohol were competing gods. Joining rugby in 2012, he spoke of it as a game of inclusion and posed for the cover of an LGBTQI+ magazine. But the conflict within Folau soon grew faster than his fame.

It made his fall – and its ugly fallout – all the more destructive. Minchin gives us a context and balance we needed then but which are even more welcome – and vital – today. Although Folau himself refused to be interviewed, he is omnipresent in footage: scorching earth as a player, preaching at his father’s church, advertising the Australian Christian Lobby who funded his court battle with Rugby Australia over his sacking, which was settled out of court.

“His absence created a different film, one that balances Israel’s story with the voices of people he affected with his actions,” Minchin says. “Just as a team is made of different people, cultures, classes and philosophies, so is a documentary … that’s where it gets complicated.”

For all the project’s virtues, revisiting the maelstrom is a necessary challenge. As a melancholy Cheika observes: “It took a lot of energy from a lot of people and in the end … no one got a positive outcome out of anything.” Is Australia a more inclusive society four years on? As a new yes/no vote looms over the nation, the Folau story continues to ask deep moral and philosophical questions of all of us.