Wednesday 13 December 2017

Aussies' all-round superstar

Former rugby league and AFL star Folau has been a welcome tonic for Wallabies in forgettable year

Israel Folau at Australia training this week
Israel Folau at Australia training this week
Playing for the Waratahs
In his Aussie Rules days with the Sydney Giants
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

THROUGH the fog of disappointment that 2013 has been for Australia, Israel Folau has been a beacon. The Wallabies pitch up in Dublin this week having already lost eight times this year. The Lions series defeat saw them change coach, while the Rugby Championship yielded only home and away wins over Argentina.

They also jettisoned James O'Connor – the man who had been entrusted with the out-half job for the visit of the Lions – while another outstanding talent, Kurtley Beale, has had his own off-field problems.

But, through it all, 'Izzy' has been a constant plus. The rugby league recruit, via two years in the AFL, has given the Wallabies something positive to hold on to.

Code-breakers who move from league to union are nothing new in Australia. We have one of them on these shores in Leinster's Lote Tuqiri.

Wendell Sailor is another but Folau's instant impact via Aussie Rules marks him out as something different.

He shocked Australians in 2011 with a decision to move to start-up AFL franchise Greater Western Sydney Giants, who committed to handing Folau an incredible AUD$6m over four years despite him not having played the code competitively before.

At the Giants, he teamed up with high performance coach and former Cavan footballer Nicholas Walsh as well as Setanta O hAilpin.

Folau and Walsh quickly fell into a friendship. They had plenty in common as Walsh had left a bright career in Gaelic football behind to pursue life as a professional in the AFL.

STAR

"He's a massive star here but he's just a nice guy," Walsh explains. "We're still in touch."

Walsh is well placed to put Folau's athleticism into context. Towards the end of his Giants career, he was a starting ruckman, the position where players contest the initial bounce and one that is usually manned by men at least 6' 7" tall.

At 6' 4", Folau would traditionally have been considered too small but his vertical leap meant he could play that position comfortably. That's where he was deployed in his last game in the AFL, one that legendary coach Kevin Sheedy described as his best.

The 24-year-old's pace is quite frightening too. At GWS, Walsh and his sports science team stripped Folau back in weight and had him covering 20m in 2.8 seconds. That's the same time Dublin footballer Jack McCaffrey ran in his now famous AFL combine, except Folau has a few stone on the Clontarf flyer.

"In terms of his skills, they are just brilliant," Walsh says. "He has hands like shovels but can be very deft with them too. People say his AFL career didn't go too well but I think he was getting better and better and 'Sheeds' did too.

"There's the 360 degree element to AFL that isn't in league and union and that's why it's the hardest one to adapt to. But when he decided to go to union, I wasn't at all surprised he was a hit."

As a giant of Tongan heritage starting out life on the wing in union, there were inevitable comparisons to Jonah Lomu. And as has been the case for most of his career, his impact was instant. He scored on his NRL debut as a 17-year-old and was only 18 when he made a try-scoring debut for Australia's rugby league team.

He busted over for two tries in the opening Lions Test on his international union debut when he had played just 14 games of top-class rugby in the Super 15. His ding-dong battle with George North was one of the highlights of the series.

Australia subsequently changed coach and, though the Rugby Championship went badly, Folau kept scoring.

He's at full-back now and was the Wallabies' top scorer in the Rugby Championship, form he has carried into the autumn. He scored against Italy in a game that saw him carry for 100m for the third Test in a row. He's also on eight tries for the calendar year, the most for Australia since Drew Mitchell managed 10 in 2010.

Refreshingly, for Australian rugby union chiefs, he's unlikely to end up on the front pages for the wrong reasons any time soon.

His religious and family ties were part of the reason former Leinster coach Michael Cheika was able to persuade him to sign for the New South Wales Waratahs, beating off renewed interest from the NRL.

In that light, he's been a massive marketing tool for the Waratahs and the union game in general. They are well down the pecking order in terms of the Australian public's interest, but the Wallabies are still measured against the two best teams in the world, New Zealand and South Arica.

"He struck up interest when he came to us," Walsh says. "People came down to have a look because he was very high-profile down here."

There have been some rumblings of discontent from league cheerleaders but his record in that game stands up to scrutiny. He scored 37 tries in 38 games for the Brisbane Broncos before his move to the AFL, while he also dotted down five times in as many State of Origin games.

And his transition to union could hardly have gone better. Folau has also struck up an unlikely friendship with former Italy and Juventus star Alessandro Del Piero, who is seeing out his playing days with Sydney FC, and paid a visit to his gallery in Turin as the Aussies beat Italy last weekend.

Their visit was hardly noticed – as it coincided with Juve's hosting of Real Madrid in the Champions League – but Del Piero still took the time to Skype Folau and his team-mates, and wrote a letter to the Wallabies, suggesting things to do in his home city.

This week Folau has landed in a damp and dull Dublin that's settling into its winter. But Australia will hope he shines as bright as ever.

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