Former Silver Ferns netballer Maria Folau is delighted to see her husband Israel back out on the rugby field, doing what he loves as he made his debut for the Catalans Dragons.
Folau scored a try with his first touch of the game and had French supporters on their feet, as he helped the Dragons to a 36-18 win over the Castleford Tigers on Sunday (NZ time).
The match was the 30-year-old's first league match in 10 years, while it was his first competitive match since he was sacked by Rugby Australia over anti-LGBT+ comments on social media last year.
The Dragons were criticised for signing Folau, but he put the drama behind him and impressed in his return to the 13-man code.
His wife Maria, who retired from the Silver Ferns in December, was among the 8000 supporters in the stands. She told Nine News she was happy to see him back playing rugby.
"We were extremely nervous about how today was going to go, but praise God," she said.
"I'm just so blessed that he was out there to play the game that he grew up loving and we're so blessed to have this opportunity to be here in the south of France."
Dragons coach Steve McNamara praised both Folau and his team for how they've dealt with the extra attention early in the season.
Former NZ Warriors fullback Sam Tomkins scored a hat-trick in the match to help the Dragons to their first win of the season after they were beaten in the opening round by the Huddersfield Giants and had their game at Wakefield called off last weekend.
"I have congratulated the team because it has been difficult," McNamara said.
"To have journalists from all around the world descending on this region, chasing players around in cars and following people and all the other bits that go with it, the players have had to deal with that and credit to them.
"People are judging him on a headline, what they've seen on social media.
When I sign a player I look at him from a football perspective then I work out what type of person he is. Is he a good person, is he a good player? Will he add value to the team on and off the field?
"I'm not judging him on any political or religious beliefs. We quite clearly do not believe in what he has said, we have made that clear in our club statement.
"The plan all along was to get Israel on the field and give him time. I understand the headlines but let him play, let him get on the field and we'll understand the person a little more after that."
Tigers coach Daryl Powell said his team was not distracted by the interest surrounding Folau's appearance.
"I just thought it was a poor performance from us," he said.
"Israel Folau is a top-line player, he's dangerous, obviously on kicks and we found that out pretty quickly but that didn't have any effect on the game, it was more a poor performance by ourselves.
"We had the same thing with the first game of the season against Toronto with Sonny Bill Williams but these things have nothing to do with the game. It's all about us."
The Dragons are back in action next week when they face St Helens in England.