The Wallabies' major sponsor Qantas said it is awaiting the outcome of Rugby Australia's review after condemning Israel Folau's controversial comments.

Wallabies and Waratahs star Folau – a devout Christian – sparked outrage following a series of social media posts on Wednesday, delivering another anti-homosexual post.

Folau – who avoided punishment last year after stating homosexuals should go to "hell" unless they "repent their sins and turn to God" – caused a stir with his stance on the Tasmanian Parliament passing a legislation to make gender optional on birth certificates and allow people 16 years and older to legally change gender without parental contest.

Rugby Australia released a statement late on Wednesday, which read: "Rugby Australia is aware of a post made by Israel Folau on his Instagram account this afternoon.

"The content within the post is unacceptable. It does not represent the values of the sport and is disrespectful to members of the Rugby community.

"The Rugby Australia Integrity Unit has been engaged on the matter tonight."

And on Thursday, Australian airline Qantas – who threatened to withdraw its sponsorship last year following similar posts made by Folau – weighed in on the controversy.

"These comments are really disappointing and clearly don't reflect the spirit of inclusion and diversity that we support," the statement read.

"We are pleased to see Rugby Australia's condemnation of the comments and will await the outcome of their review."

Cameron Bancroft hopes to impress Australia's selectors and earn a Test recall in the future as he looks to move on from the ball-tampering scandal.

Bancroft was banned for nine months after admitting to trying to alter the condition of the ball during Australia's third Test against South Africa in 2018.

The 26-year-old made his return to action in the Big Bash League last December and will spend the next few months with Durham in the County Championship.

Bancroft will captain Durham in the second tier this season, a decision that was met with some surprise given his involvement in the scandal that also saw Australia team-mates Steve Smith and David Warner suspended for 12 months.

Smith and Warner are expected to make their international comebacks ahead of the Cricket World Cup, with the plan to see them return to Test cricket at the Ashes later in 2019.

When Bancroft could add to his eight Test caps remains unclear, but he hopes that it will happen one day.

"The aspiration to play Test cricket is certainly in my mind and where I'd love to be one day. But I also can't be there. I'm here right now," he told reporters ahead of Durham's home match with Sussex.

"[Playing for Australia] would mean a lot to me, definitely. But I also know that I've got a lot of great things in my life

"Even just playing club cricket back home in Perth, it's a game I felt like where you get self-absorbed and single-minded in your pursuits to achieve things.

"At the forefront is just the enjoyment of it all. If I do that then I know the results will take care of themselves. Hopefully it will happen one day."

Bancroft says he grew up during his time out of the game and believes there have been some positives to come out of what happened.

He added: "We all make mistakes and I guess it's how you're able to grow as a person, in admitting and being honest with yourself about those mistakes.

"I certainly have been and as a person that's something that I'm completely accountable for. I wouldn't have it any other way.

"I've learned a lot about myself, I think being able to take time to detach myself from cricket was something that I found a lot of joy in.

"Turning that event from South Africa into a positive was something I was really proud of and to have that opportunity to grow as a person, you'd be silly not to take those steps forward."

Virat Kohli has become the first player to be crowned the world's leading cricketer for a third successive year by Wisden.

The cricketing almanack annually recognises the top players across all formats of the game, and once again Kohli has been named as the world's best.

During 2018, India captain Kohli scored five Test hundreds and amassed an impressive 1,322 runs – 299 more than any other player.

Across all three formats Kohli scored 2,735 runs, with 1,202 of them coming in ODIs – the 30-year-old averaging 133.55 in the 50-over format.

Smriti Mandhana claimed the women's leading player award, completing a clean sweep for India, while Afghanistan spinner Rashid Khan is the top Twenty20 player for a second year in a row.

Meanwhile, Kohli has also been named as one of Wisden's five cricketers of the year, where he is joined by England quartet Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran and Tammy Beaumont – who scored a 47-ball T20 hundred against South Africa at Taunton in June.

Australia and Waratahs full-back Israel Folau could be set for another showdown with Rugby Australia bosses after sparking outrage with more controversial social media posts on Wednesday.

Folau avoided punishment last year after stating homosexuals should go to "hell" unless they "repent their sins and turn to God".

Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle spoke of the importance of using social media in a respectful manner after meeting the 30-year-old following his initial outbursts.

Folau has delivered another anti-homosexual post and caused a stir with his stance on the Tasmanian Parliament passing a legislation to make gender optional on birth certificates and allow people 16 years and older to legally change gender without parental contest.

The devout Christian posted a message on Instagram that stated "hell awaits" drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters along with "REPENT! ONLY JESUS SAVES".

He added: "Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him."

Folau also weighed in with his position on the gender debate.

He tweeted a link to a story on legislation being passed in Tasmania and wrote: "The devil has blinded so many people in this world, REPENT and turn away from your evil ways. Turn to Jesus Christ who will set you free."

Uncapped back-row Akira Ioane has been included in an extended New Zealand squad for a foundation day ahead of the international season - but there is no place for Ma'a Nonu.

Ioane was one of 41 players named on Tuesday, along with his brother and prolific wing Rieko Ioane.

However, there was no place for veteran centre Nonu in a squad that will assemble for a gathering in Wellington on April 15.

All North Island-based players will meet up again on May 20 in Auckland, while those on the South Island will gather in Christchurch on June 3.

New Zealand Rugby head of high performance Mike Anthony revealed the dates had been chosen during a meeting with Super Rugby coaches and All Blacks management last year.

"Given the All Blacks have an incredibly short lead-in time to the upcoming international season, culminating in the Rugby World Cup, and with there being no camps during the Super Rugby season, the foundation days will provide an opportunity for All Blacks management and our leading players to start building towards what is a huge year ahead," he said.

 

New Zealand squad:

Forwards: Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Nathan Harris, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Tyrel Lomax, Joe Moody, Angus Ta'avao, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Jackson Hemopo, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Matt Todd, Luke Whitelock.
 
Backs: TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo'unga, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith.
 

New Zealand flanker Sam Cane has been given the green light to resume contact training with the Chiefs, six months after breaking his neck.

Cane underwent surgery after suffering a fracture in a vertebra on the lower-right side of his neck during the All Blacks' victory over South Africa in Pretoria last October.

Chiefs coach Colin Cooper revealed on Tuesday that Cane has taken another big step in his recovery.

"He had a little bit of contact yesterday and we'll manage him through some contact in the next two weeks and take it from there," Cooper said.

"It's exciting for him and he's excited to be back. It's been a tough journey for him but, as the co-captain, he's been playing a key part and making sure there's accountability and some honesty among us coaches and the players."

Cooper added: "[We will consider] if we put him into some club rugby to get more confidence, or do we bring him off the bench? It's all about managing him through that."

England captain Joe Root is "fine" after taking a blow to his left hand late on day three of Yorkshire's County Championship fixture at Nottinghamshire.

Root was struck by a Joe Clarke drive with three overs remaining at Trent Bridge on Sunday and left the pitch for medical attention.

However, Yorkshire head coach Andrew Gale quickly allayed any fears of serious damage when speaking to Sky Sports at the close of play.

"No, he's fine. He's just strapped it up, just icing it up," he said.

"It was just precautionary really, he'll be fine for tomorrow [Monday]."

Nottinghamshire closed day three on 329-5 in their second innings, a lead of 446 runs.

Ben Stokes hopes his response to being arrested and the subsequent court case could prove to be a major positive influence on his mentality during the rest of his career.

The star all-rounder was arrested in September 2017 during a night out after England's one-day international against West Indies.

He missed the 2017-18 Ashes series against Australia as a consequence, but was later acquitted after facing charges of affray. 

"No matter what happens in life with me now, the Bristol thing will always be there," he told ESPNcricinfo.

"It's something I'll always carry with me. It'll always be there. Always.

"I want to do things on the field to be remembered for. If we win the World Cup, that becomes the first paragraph [of a career profile], doesn't it? I don't want to be remembered as the guy who had a fight in the street."

Despite his international and professional future being at risk before and during the trial, Stokes claims he had always considered himself fortunate to play cricket for a living.

"The easy thing to say is yes, it made me appreciate it more," he said.

"But I don't know - I always did appreciate it.

"But thinking all this is going to be taken away from me might be the thing that has changed the way I do things. I was that close to my career ending and being thrown away just like that. Maybe that is it.

"It sounds silly but, could Bristol have been the best thing that could have happened to me? Who knows. But maybe in terms of my way of thinking."

Ben Ryan says the proposed Nations Championship can be "game-changing" for Fiji and vital for the development of rugby union in the Pacific Island nation.

World Rugby has laid out plans for the introduction of a new global competition in 2022.

Fiji and Japan would join countries that compete in the Rugby Championship and Six Nations, with the competition split into two conferences and the top two teams meeting in the final.

Ryan says the changes, which are yet to be agreed by unions, could take rugby in Fiji to another level.

The country's former sevens coach told Omnisport: "I think it would be amazing for Fiji if an agreement is reached for the Nations Championship because the financial benefits would be game-changing.

"Having four or five huge Tests at home would boost the economy hugely and generate massive interest amongst the people of Fiji. 

"The additional finance that would come with this hopefully being signed off would enable Fijian rugby to take the next step, potentially building a new stadium and the possibility of having a team in one of the bigger leagues.

"It is interesting times. Presuming Super Rugby is still going in five or six years' time then maybe that could be possibility [to have a team from Fiji in the competition].

"If the changes are passed it would surely just be a matter of when, not if, there was a side from Fiji in a major league.

"This is an important time for union in Fiji because rugby league is a major threat, with a lot of interest in the NRL and increasing support for league."

Fiji fans will be out in force over the next few days at the Hong Kong Sevens - an event the country has won four years in succession - and Ryan believes the link between sevens rugby and the 15-man format is still hugely important in the country.

"I don't think it has changed much since I was there, in that I would watch amateur matches and look to see if anyone catches the eye. I would work closely with John McKee [coach of the 15-a-side team] and we would go into each other's camps." said Ryan, who masterminded Fiji's Olympic glory in Rio and two Sevens World Series titles. 

"There was never a shortage of talent and I know that is still the case. Fijians love sevens and it can be a great way to bring players through."

As the 2019 Hong Kong Sevens got under way on Friday, HSBC released a new film exploring the reputation of the event through the eyes of the legions of fans who attend the tournament every year from Fiji. The documentary, part of HSBC's ongoing mission to support the growth of rugby sevens, can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/7ft05hJuJZo.

 

Former New Zealand utility back Israel Dagg has announced his retirement from rugby.

The 30-year-old, who operated on the wing and at full-back, has struggled to recover from a long-term knee injury and has decided to hang up his boots after taking advice from medical staff.

Dagg played 66 Test matches for the All Blacks between 2010 and 2017, scoring 26 tries.

He won the World Cup with New Zealand in 2011 and claimed back-to-back Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders in 2017 and 2018.

Cardiff Blues flanker Josh Navidi is out for the rest of the season but the Wales flanker will be fit for the Rugby World Cup after undergoing surgery on a dislocated elbow.

Navidi suffered the damage early in the Blues' Pro14 victory over the Scarlets last month.

The forward is expected to be out for between 10 and 12 weeks, ruling him out of the rest of the play-off chasing Blues' campaign.

Navidi, outstanding in Wales' Grand Slam triumph, is not in danger of missing the World Cup in Japan - which starts in September.

Blues head coach John Mulvihill said: "Josh dislocated his elbow in a bit of friendly fire, which was unfortunate. He's had surgery and will be right to go for the World Cup camps.

"He'll be out for up to three months but will be able to return to running fairly early in the rehab process and maintain his conditioning under the guidance of our first class medical and strength and conditioning teams. 

"He will be refreshed, which will be really good for him going into the camp."

 

 

Alastair Cook says the battle to become England's first-choice opener is wide open ahead of the Ashes, with James Vince, Jason Roy and Keaton Jennings all in contention.

England have been unable to settle on a reliable opening pair since Andrew Strauss' retirement in 2012, with Cook having a string of partners in the years that followed.

Jennings was one of the many to try their hand alongside Cook and following the latter's retirement last year England again began to assess their options.

In the West Indies only Rory Burns opened in all three Tests, with Jennings partnering him in two and Joe Denly in the other.

None of them averaged more than 30, though, and the make-up of England's top order remains uncertain heading into the Ashes, beginning on August 1.

Vince will open for Hampshire in a bid to boost his chances, while Roy has also expressed a desire to be given the nod against Australia, though a hamstring injury may have damaged his hopes.

Cook believes all three have the quality to force their way in and is relishing watching the battle unfold.

"It's very exciting for anyone out there, the top order hasn't been settled for England for a while and there are places up for grabs," he told Sky Sports. 

"Any player, with such a big summer ahead with the World Cup and Ashes, has such an opportunity. If you have a good year you can make a name for yourself.

"I haven't seen much of Jason playing four-day cricket, we've all seen what he can do in white-ball stuff and it is – in one way – a very similar game. 

"You can see he can handle himself in international cricket, he's a fantastic strokemaker. He hasn't batted a huge amount at the top of the order for Surrey so that's a bit of a concern in one way but he's so talented."

Cook added: "Obviously now [Vince's] opening for Hampshire, going up the order, I think it's a fantastic opportunity for him.

"Vincey is a brilliant cricketer, a brilliant batter, one I love watching bat. The amount of time he's got playing against pace bowling, he got a fantastic 80 [against Australia] in Brisbane, a real high-pressure situation, so he can do it as well.

"Keats [Jennings] is a great guy, a great batter who's experienced everything in Test cricket in such a short space of time. A hundred on debut, a hundred in Sri Lanka and then some tough moments back at home in English conditions. 

"He'll be like anyone, desperate to score runs for Lancashire, desperate for some form and to make the call for the selectors very hard. 

"No one's nailed a place and no one can say they are a shoe-in for that top three, so it's all to play for."

Ireland flanker Dan Leavy has been ruled out of the Rugby World Cup due to a knee ligament injury.

Leavy was carried off just 10 minutes after replacing Sean O'Brien in Leinster's 21-18 European Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster on Saturday.

The defending champions on Monday confirmed the back row will consequently miss the World Cup in Japan, which runs from September until November.

Leinster tweeted: "Leinster Rugby can confirm that Dan Leavy had an initial scan yesterday on a complex knee ligament injury but needs further assessment this week.

"He has been ruled out for the remainder of the season and into next season to include the Rugby World Cup."

Leavy, 24, only returned from a calf strain which prevented him from playing any part in the Six Nations on March 22.

Leigh Halfpenny feared concussion issues were set to end his career before the Wales full-back was cleared to return for the Scarlets in February.  

Halfpenny was out for three months after suffering a head injury during a Test victory over Australia in November.  

The British and Irish Lion thought he may have to retire due to the damage suffered against the Wallabies.

"If I'm being honest it did," the 30-year-old said when asked if it had crossed his mind that he may have to quit.  

"There was a point where I was constantly having headaches and was trying to do something on the bike or jogging and my head would be pounding from it."  

He added: "You were thinking, 'when is this going to end?' It was a tough one. I'm delighted to be over it."  

Halfpenny knows he faces a battle to earn a Wales recall after Warren Gatland's side completed a Six Nations Grand Slam.  

"The back three in the Six Nations were absolutely outstanding and there's a lot of competition for places in the back three," Halfpenny said.  

"It's about putting in the hard work."

New Zealand centre Ryan Crotty will leave the Crusaders and join Japanese club Kubota Spears after the Rugby World Cup.

The 30-year-old has made 142 Super Rugby appearances for the champions since making his debut 11 years ago and has won 44 Test caps for the world champions, but he will move on at the end of the year.

All Blacks captain Kieran Read last month announced he will finish his Test career to link up with Toyota Verblitz following the World Cup in Japan and Crotty will also ply his trade in the Top League from next year.

"The All Blacks, Crusaders and Canterbury rugby have been such an important part of my life and I'm grateful for every opportunity I've had to represent my country, my province and my family over the years," Crotty said.

"I'm a proud Cantabrian and Christchurch will always be home, but I'm really looking forward to taking on a new challenge in the Top League as part of the Kubota Spears club.

"I know I'll look back at the end of my career in New Zealand with really fond memories of the experiences I've had and what I've achieved alongside my good mates, but for now my focus is enjoying the season ahead and helping to lead this Crusaders side one last time in 2019."

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said: "Crotts has been one of the mainstays of our midfield for many years and is a world-class footballer.  

"He's a very physical, well-balanced rugby player, an outstanding communicator and decision-maker, who runs great lines and has a great pass. He's been a real asset to the All Blacks, Crusaders and Canterbury and will leave New Zealand rugby at the end of the season with our very best wishes." 

One All Black who will not be ending his international career is scrum-half Aaron Smith, who on Monday signed a two-year deal with New Zealand Rugby and the Highlanders.

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