Ireland must find way to keep Folau grounded
Aussie full-back’s aerial prowess is lethal weapon
Over the years, much has been made of the GAA attributes that have contributed to Ireland's aerial strength.
Whether it's Shane Horgan's try against England at Croke Park, Robbie Henshaw's effort against the same opponents in 2015 or the sight of Rob Kearney or Tommy Bowe rising high above an opponent, it is not long before the player's Gaelic football background is mentioned.
On Joe Schmidt's watch, it has been rare to see the Irish team bettered under the high ball. Prior to last Saturday's loss to Australia, they had dominated most of the teams they faced in that department with the 2015 defeat to Wales one notable exception.
Then, along came Israel Folau.
The Australian kicking game has been widely discussed in Ireland camp all week and, given the devastating impact the full-back had when the match was in the balance, it is understandable.
They went to the boot more frequently than Ireland, but never more effectively than when Kurtley Beale put the ball up for his full-back to run on to in the 70th minute. The home side never looked back.
Folau used all of his athletic capacity and nous to rise highest over Jacob Stockdale's head, before utilising his strength to hold off Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray to put Samu Kerevi through a gap.
Ireland were firmly on the back foot and within minutes David Pocock was powering over from close range.
This week, in the home of Australian Rules (AFL), Folau has been reflecting on how his skill-set has formed during his time in rugby league when he worked with coaches from AFL club Carlton.
He also spent a season with Great Western Sydney between his stints in the two rugby codes and it has left him nigh on untouchable in the air.
"It's a skill set I work on," he told 'The Australian'. "It was from the time I spent down in Melbourne here, with the Storm. We used to do a lot of work with Carlton Football Club and we'd do a lot of work on kicking and catching skills.
"That's where I really learnt to catch overhead. Just the awareness of when you land and obviously continue running, it's something I learned from them.
"I'm pretty thankful that I got to learn that early on in my career."
Whatever about Australia utilising their star man, some have questioned why Ireland's kick-off strategy appeared to target the best fielder in the game. Both Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery sent their restarts his way with little reward.
Sexton chose not to explain the plan when asked about it on Tuesday, only suggesting that the execution had not matched the intent. What was clear was that the Australians were determined to make the most of their full-back's prowess.
"If you've got Folau in your backline you'd be silly not to kick high to him. He's outstanding in the air and we've got some outstanding guys in the air as well and the margins between a few of the aerial contests were so small," the Ireland out-half said. "Both guys get up as high and he's winning it. I'm sure they'll come again with it this week and we've got to be a little bit better."
One way of stopping the tactic is to pressurise the kicker, but Australia's use of twin playmakers makes that more difficult because if Ireland go after Bernard Foley then Kurtley Beale can deliver a kick of supreme quality and vice versa.
"The firepower they have in that backline, the way they use the ball, their strength in the air, I suppose when you have to Folau you can do that," Kearney said.
"They varied their kicking game very well. They kicked off Beale a huge amount, other times off Foley, so it's difficult, but when you have got two playmakers there, who are able to kick the ball, they worked us on some of those angle kicks a little bit."
Stockdale admitted that, despite being aware of Folau's reputation in the air, he hadn't quite appreciated how tough it would be. That's because of the powerful Australian's approach.
"It's all about the timing. You've got to read the flight of the ball in the air while you're running so that you can get a 45-degree catch at it," Folau said. "If you get there too early, then you're jumping off two feet (which mitigates against the phenomenal height he gets on his vertical leap). You want to get there in time so you can spring off and go into the ball.
"When I'm going in to catch a high ball, I actually don't know what's happening around me. I just have eyes for the ball. It can be risky. But if you get your timing right, the jump into the ball has got to be clean and so when you land, you're going to land on both feet. That's the key, to keep your eyes fixed on the ball and get the timing right."
Both teams will adapt their approaches for this week's second Test but, given their trust in Folau's capacity to win his battles, the Wallabies are likely to go to the air once again. "It's about playing to our strengths and giving a bit of variety in our attack," Will Genia said ahead of last weekend. "If you can put the ball there, he's going to catch it, I would honestly say, 10 times out of 10."
Ireland have had a week to try and change those odds. How successful they are with it will have a large bearing on whether they can level the series in Melbourne.
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