Catalans Dragons say they remain in constant dialogue with Israel Folau as speculation over his departure from the Super League club intensifies.
The French club are close to confirming the signing of New Zealand Test centre Dean Whare but that is not linked to the Folau situation and he will be a straight replacement for David Mead.
Folau returned to Australia at the end of last season with his wife and newborn baby and has yet to report back to Perpignan ahead of the 2021 season, largely due to pressing family matters.
The controversial 31-year-old dual-code international is contracted to the Catalans to the end of 2021 but has become a target for NRL club St George Illawarra, who are thought to have offered him a two-year deal.
The longer Folau remains in Australia, the more likely it is that he will end his spell in Super League but Dragons coach Steve McNamara has dismissed reports that the former Wallaby has cut off contact with the club.
“I’m in constant dialogue with Izzy,” McNamara said. “Nothing has changed on that front for either of us. We are in constant dialogue over the whole situation.”
A statement issued by the Catalans in January said: “The club and Israel Folau have been in constant dialogue since Christmas regarding a personal family situation. This, along with Covid restrictions, are currently preventing his return to France.”
St George Illawarra are thought to have been talking to Folau since before Christmas with an eye to bringing him back to Australia to play under new coach Anthony Griffin.
The NRL club’s chief executive Ryan Webb has confirmed they recently submitted a written request to explore the signing.
“We’re definitely interested and we’re talking to Israel,” Webb told nrl.com. “Now we’re working with the NRL to allay any concerns on registering a contract for him.
“We understand there will be a range of opinions in regards to this decision but we believe he would be a good addition to our club.”
Once St George Illawarra formally lodge the paperwork, it will go before the seven members of the Australian Rugby League Commission, which previously blocked a potential return to the NRL after ruling he failed to match the league’s “inclusiveness culture”.
Folau’s deeply religious beliefs have polarised opinions across sport. He joined the Catalans on a 12-month deal ahead of the 2020 season, despite opposition from both Super League and a majority of clubs who were concerned over views he had expressed on subjects like homophobia.
Folau’s contract with Rugby Australia was terminated in 2019 after he said “hell awaits” gay people in a social media post. He subsequently took legal action and reached a settlement.
He was thrown a lifeline by the Dragons and, after scoring on his Super League debut last February, played a key role as they reached the play-off semi-finals.
The Rugby Football League reluctantly agreed to register Folau after receiving assurances from both the player and the Catalans over his future behaviour and St George’s proposal to the NRL contains strict stipulations around public and social media comments.