Seven players from Australian rugby league team Manly will boycott a championship match this week on religious grounds, after being told to wear a jersey celebrating LGBTQ+ rights.
The Sydney-based Sea Eagles announced on Monday the team would wear the pride jersey, which replaces the team's white stripes with rainbow bands, for the National Rugby League (NRL) match against Sydney Roosters on Thursday.
But championship-winning coach Des Hasler said seven of his players were opposed to wearing it on "religious and cultural" grounds and had pulled out of the match at Brookvale Oval.
"We accept their decision," he told reporters on Tuesday.
"These young men are strong in their beliefs and their convictions and we will give them the space and the support they require."
The players standing down are Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolutau Koula and Toafofoa Sipley. Some of them have been known to be open about their Christian faith.
Former Manly player Ian Roberts, the first professional rugby league player to come out as gay, said the players' stance was "sad and uncomfortable."
"I can promise you every young kid on the northern beaches (of Sydney) who is dealing with their sexuality would have heard about this," he told Sydney's Daily Telegraph.
LGBTQ advocates have condemned the boycott. But Hasler defended the seven, saying the club was at fault for not consulting the playing group and other stakeholders inside and outside the club.
He apologised to his players and to the "minority groups within the community who embrace the rainbow colours as a symbol of pride in who they are."
"The intent of the jersey was to support the advocacy and human rights pertaining to gender, race, culture, ability and LGBTQ movements," he said.
"Sadly the execution ... was poor."
Reverend Dr Ma’afu Palu from the Tongan Evangelical Wesleyan Church in Greenacre told The Sydney Morning Herald he was proud of the players.
“Christianity takes a very strong root in our people,” he said. “Whatever the Bible says is very authoritative to us. Personally, I’m very proud.”
NRL boss Peter V'landys said the league respected the players' position but hoped they would change their minds.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also weighed in, saying he hoped Manly could resolve the jersey standoff.
"It's a good thing that sport is more inclusive," he told reporters earlier on Tuesday.
"It's important that in Australian society, we respect everyone for who they are."
(Additonal reporting by Tola Mbakwe)