SYDNEY (AFP) - Scott Johnson has backed moves to sack Israel Folau over homophobic comments, with Australia's new director of rugby citing his experience in helping Wales fullback Gareth Thomas come out as the sport's first openly gay player.
Devout Christian Folau will fight to save his career at a code of conduct hearing on May 4 after Rugby Australia decided to fire him over a social media post that said "hell awaits" gay people.
Sydney-born Johnson said it was vital the sport embraces people of all backgrounds after the controversy exploded during his first month on the job, having been recruited from Scotland.
"Israel's got a chance to put his case forward with the tribunal this week. I want to make it really clear - I'm very supportive of where Rugby Australia is in this stance," he told reporters.
He added that "what I stand for is we want a game that includes everyone".
His strong belief in inclusivity stems from his relationship with 103-Test star Thomas, who eventually came out in 2009 after confiding in Johnson about his sexuality.
The pair developed a bond while Johnson was assistant and then caretaker Wales coach, and even after he left to work with the Wallabies, they remained close.
Johnson said that in 2006, after Australia had played out a 29-29 draw with Wales in Cardiff, a distraught Thomas asked to speak with him, even though he was then employed by the opposition.
He told him of his battles and it was Johnson who ultimately informed Thomas's teammates and coaches why their captain had been in emotional turmoil.
"This is what I love about the sport - I love that I'm now coaching his opposition and I get called into his change room because he only wanted to talk to me," he said.
"And I spent the next 24 hours offsite in the opposition's hotel talking to his teammates because he couldn't.
"I was very privileged and honoured to be there as the person that Gareth Thomas needed to talk to about his sexuality," Johnson added.
Folau, Super Rugby's all-time record try scorer, asserted on his Instagram account earlier this month that "hell awaits" gay people.
He has refused to apologise, with the scandal following a similar one last year in which he escaped sanction.
In the wake of his post, Thomas wrote on Twitter: "I don't write this with hate or anger after Israel Folau's comments. I write with sympathy.
"To everyone who reads it, don't be influenced by his words. Be the better person and be YOU. Whoever YOU is. Hell doesn't await YOU. Happiness awaits YOU."