Israel Folau, the former Wallaby who was sacked in 2019 for claiming that “hell awaits” homosexuals, was booed with every touch of the ball by a section of the Twickenham crowd on Sunday.
Folau, who scored a try in a losing cause as Steve Hansen's World XV were defeated 48-42 by Eddie Jones' Barbarians, was subjected to jeers on his first touch of the ball in the sixth minute, which could also be heard on the television coverage, with the Pride flag flying high above Twickenham's north stand.
The full-back won 73 caps for the Wallabies between 2013 and 2019 but switched national allegiance to Tonga after his dismissal by Rugby Australia. The 34-year-old made his international debut for his adopted nation in 2022 and, if selected, will represent them at the World Cup this autumn having returned to rugby union following an aborted spell in league, the code that launched his career.
In response to Folau's presence at Twickenham, the Rugby Football Union opted to fly the Pride flag before and during the game at their headquarters. English rugby's governing body also gifted 100 tickets to the local LGBTQ community.
One recipient of those tickets was Nick Heath, LGBTQ lead commentator, who said that it was vital for "people to object to the presence of a guy who insists on using a very public platform to promote a message that could be causing harm to others".
"There's a whole pocket of us down here," said Heath, whose group proudly displayed rainbow flags at Twickenham. "There are around 100 people who have been invited from the LGBTQ community, representing various IGR [International Gay Rugby] clubs and through us at 'Pride in Touch'. We do a lot of work on inclusion through touch rugby and we've brought a lot of our volunteers down and people who have worked with the West London Queer Project.
"While the RFU acknowledged that there is still work to do on the trans participation ban - and flying the flag today was met with a lot of positivity — it's still about visibility. You don't know who's in the crowd struggling to come to terms with their own identity, who needs to see that there are people out there objecting to the presence of a guy who insists on using a very public platform to promote a message that could be causing harm to others.
"There's no problem with him having religious beliefs — that's fine — the problem is then sharing them on a very public sphere when you're a role model and you have the following that you do and it could ultimately be causing harm to people through something that they do not choose to do. It's something that, in his eyes, you have to tell everyone you're going to hell for and he could be promoting - if not causing - young people to harm or kill themselves all in the name of his so-called religion."
Folau's coach with World XV, Hansen, who sported a rainbow wristband to celebrate the occasion, added: “The community is a special one and every human being deserves to be loved and cared for.”
The Barbarians' victory, captained by Alun Wyn Jones on what might be his final appearance at Twickenham, marked Eddie Jones' first appearance at the home of English rugby since his sacking by the RFU in December. The Australian said it was "fantastic" to be back.
"Fantastic mate," said Jones, 63. "Sun shining. No overcoat or scarf on. Just a shirt. Fantastic.
"Just good [memories] mate. Seven years here. It’s the longest I’ve ever coached a team and I loved every minute of coaching here. I loved every minute of coming back."