Seven players in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) plan to boycott a key match over their team’s decision to wear a Pride flag jersey.

On Thursday (28 July), the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles will become the first team in the competition ever to don a kit which promotes LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the sport. 

The game is considered important to the club’s chances of making the NRL finals.

However, players weren’t consulted when the decision to wear the ‘Everyone in the league’ jersey was made and some have objected to the move on religious and cultural grounds.

As league rules prevent players from the same team wearing different jerseys, these players won’t participate in the match.

Local media has identified the seven players as Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolu Koula and Toafofoa Sipley.

Des Hasler, the club’s coach, has apologised on behalf of the club, saying they made a “significant mistake” that caused “confusion, discomfort and pain for many people, in particular those groups whose human rights we were in fact attempting to support”.

He also said that the seven players “are not wearing the jersey as it conflicts with their cultural and religious beliefs.” 

“Their spirituality is a central part of their wellbeing. The club has made an error from which it will learn. The players will not play on Thursday and we accept their decision,” he added.

Despite this, Hasler confirmed the team would press ahead and wear the jersey on Thursday’s game.

The players’ decision has sparked backlash online. 

Sports journalist Pam Whaley responded to the incident on Twitter, writing: “What infuriates me (and always has) is that players will boycott over a rainbow but never boycott a teammate if he’s been accused of violence against women or any other morally reprehensible behaviour that they would all agree they don’t condone. I do not understand it.” 

Others accused the seven of hypocrisy, pointing out that the team is sponsored by a brewery and betting agency.

Former Manly star Ian Roberts – the first-ever former NRL player to come out as gay – said the the boycott “breaks his heart”. 

In a column for the Sydney Morning Herald, he implored the seven players to reconsider their position.

“Can you not understand the pain visited upon gay people who, no matter what they do, are disrespected simply for being gay?” he wrote.

Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister of Australia, commended Manly for the decision, saying it’s “important in Australian society that we respect everyone for who they are”.

Few Australian sport stars have publicly come out as LGBTQ+.

Roberts and others said homophobia remains an issue among fans and players in the country’s top competitions.

In 2015, Israel Folau – who has played rugby league, rugby union and Australian football at the highest levels – was controversially sacked by Rugby Australia for making anti-gay posts on social media.

Adelaide United footballer Josh Cavallo – who came out in October – has criticised the abuse directed at him by crowds over his sexuality.