London (AFP) - Australian rugby star Israel Folau was at the centre of fresh controversy on Sunday when he opted against taking a knee in a Super League anti-racism protest, a decision backed as a "personal choice" by his coach.
Folau, 31, playing for Catalans Dragons, raised eyebrows at the kick-off against champions St Helens in Leeds when he remained standing while other players and officials fell to their knees in support of the Black Lives Matter cause.
"As a group of players and coaching staff, we spoke about it in depth and as a club we are completely against racism and all for equal opportunity," said Dragons coach Steve McNamara.
"But there were some players and staff who made the decision not to take the knee.
"That was based on personal choice, they have their own reasons for doing that, and we decided we would respect anyone's personal choice on the matter."
Folau, 31, was sacked by Rugby Australia in May 2019 over a homophobic social media post.
However, he made his return to the 13-a-side code in February this year with the Dragons after a decade playing Australian rules football and union.
Taking a knee at sports events has become increasingly common in recent weeks.
However, a number of Formula One drivers have opted to stand instead in pre-race protests.
On the pitch on Sunday, St Helens enjoyed a resounding 34-6 win as Super League returned from the coronavirus shutdown.
The match, postponed in February due to Saints' involvement in the World Club Challenge, marked the resumption of the campaign after a five-month lay-off caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
With no spectators and scrums, the game marked the arrival of a new set of regulations highlighted by the "six again" rule copied from the NRL -- a set of six more tackles for ruck infringements.
Champions St Helens, who suffered a surprise defeat to Castleford in the last match before lockdown, had England veteran James Graham back in their side on Sunday, 17 years since he made his debut.
His powerful runs and strong defence helped offset the loss of regular forwards Matty Lees and Dom Peyroux, who missed out through illness and injury.
The Dragons were the first Super League club to resume training but looked disjointed for most of the game and trailed 28-0 before James Maloney scored their only points.