Israel Folau a masterful code breaker for the Wallabies
An Australian star of Tongan heritage, Israel Folau is not fazed by the pressure surrounding him
’Izzy’ has not only represented Australia at rugby league and union, but also managed a brief career in Aussie Rules football
Natural athletic ability often doesn’t accept the straightjacket of a single pursuit. How frequently do you watch a young kid excel at one sport only to be informed by the touchline cognoscenti that he or she is even better when it comes to another discipline, while virtually unplayable at a third.
It’s a commonplace conversation but to transport that physical prowess and varied skills sets to a professional environment at elite level is by contrast comparatively rare, thereby guaranteeing an immediate fascination with the subject.
At the tender age of 24, Israel Folau, or Izzy to his friends and team-mates, has represented Australia at rugby league and union, a not uncommon feat, but sandwiched in between he managed a brief career in Aussie Rules football, something of an unholy trinity in terms of cross-pollination.
Leaving aside his 18-month spell with the Greater Western Sydney football club, in the ARL (13 first-class matches), where his impact on the pitch was consensually underwhelming according to the local and national media, Folau has been an outstanding presence in both rugby codes.
He played his first NRL match for the Melbourne Storm in 2007 making his debut as a 17-year-old, before going on to score 36 tries in 52 matches (2007-2008). In 2009, he joined the Brisbane Broncos (2009-2010), where his try scoring exploits of 37 in 38 games was even more staggering. He was capped by the Kangaroos (seven matches, five tries) and aged 18 years 194 days, the youngest ever.
He crossed for five tries in as many state of origin matches while representing Queensland. He took the surprise decision to head for Aussies Rules, a sport he’d never played previously even as a child, but in December of last year, agreed a deal with the Australian Rugby Union and the New South Wales Waratahs.
The penultimate set of statistics: in his first season of Super 15 rugby Folau, in 14 matches, made 114 line-breaks for 1,612 metres, scoring eight tries. Those figures are a pretty impressive lamppost on which to lean but real illumination is provided visually.
At 6ft 4in and 16st 3lb, the Australian with Tongan heritage cuts an imposing figure but he complements power with a balletic grace. He could dodge raindrops. Irish rugby has quite a few claimants down the years to dominating the aerial collisions but a feature of his career to date is the number of tries he’s snaffled from cross-kicks.
Folau’s form in
earned him a debut for the Wallabies against the British & Irish Lions at the Suncorp stadium in Brisbane during the summer. Selected on the wing – he played fullback and centre in league and had only one previous game in union in that position until that night – his match-up with George North provided one of the most entertaining personal duels of the series.
He announced his arrival in test rugby with a brace of tries, the first in collecting scrumhalf Will Genia’s clever grubber kick, the second a virtuoso effort, when he stepped inside Jonathan Sexton, fended off Alex Corbisiero and evaded Leigh Halfpenny’s despairing lunge.
Folau conceded: “I am lucky to have played my first game against the Lions which is very special. That night was incredible. I haven’t really experienced anything like it.”
Genia admitted: “Being on the field with him (Folau) you just know that he is going to get you over the advantage line. You know that he is going to create something. He is going to create space for guys outside him. “The perfect example for me was that second try when there was a two-on-one (against him). I just thought he’s going to score here but I chased hard just in case he needed to make an offload. One thing that great sportsmen have is anticipation. To put himself in that position (referring to Folau’s first try) to pick up the kick just shows how much talent he does have and how well he reads the game.”
Other snapshots from that series, include him winning several aerial contests, being picked up by North in a fireman’s lift, and then exacting a measure of revenge by brilliantly denying the Welshman a try when getting his hand under the ball.
In nine subsequent caps, during the Rugby Championship, he scored a further five tries, including a hat-trick against Argentina in Rosario, finishing the tournament as his team’s leading try-scorer.
Interestingly, he played the last five matches at fullback, where he’s likely to feature, injuries permitting, against Ireland. Australia won only three of those 10 matches – twice beating the Pumas – so his try-scoring rate is impressive.
Off the pitch Folau, born to Tongan parents and one of six children, presents an image of someone who is unaffected by the maelstrom of interest that has greeted every twist and turn in his career to date.
In a recent interview ahead of Australia’s tour to the Northern Hemisphere he admitted that the pressure to perform in union is no different to the times he experienced in other codes.
He is not spooked in being the focal point of attention. “Nothing different at all, it’s just the routine. It’s something I’ve experienced throughout my whole career, not just in rugby.
“I pretty much take it the same as I’ve handled it in the past, it’s not much a distraction really. It’s just part of my game, I’ve got to worry about my personal preparation and do my best for the team. (I’m) a lot more (comfortable) in attack, getting my hands on the ball, coming into the line and calling it with confidence.”
Named rookie of the year, he also polled third for the John Eales medal – it’s awarded to the top-rated Australian player – behind Wycliff Palu and Michael Hooper, the eventual winner.
The summer series against the Lions and the disappointment in losing 2-1 in the tests motivates him, particularly in the games against England and Wales, who made up the bulk of the Lions side. Ireland also falls into his crosshairs.
Given his birthplace, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that the player to whom he looked up as a youngster, was fellow Tongan and former All Black Jonah Lomu. Folau admitted: “Once you knew he was Tongan you would get excited about it and obviously as a kid looking up to him you want to play like him.”
The sense of family values and community is something that he holds dear and has shaped his decisions in the past. He wants to look after his kin financially and that has framed his career path to date.
He also understands his responsibility to those young minds and hearts that put him on a pedestal.
“You want to try to play the game in a really good positive way, not just on the field but off the field as well in being a positive person and getting good vibes out to the community.”
He’s certainly lived up to that billing since his arrival in rugby union. Those Irish fans who pitch up to the Aviva stadium on Saturday, November 16th, will get the chance to witness, a superb athlete and player whose short term impact in rugby union suggests a bright future in the sport, for, however, long that may be. Comparisons with Sonny Bill Williams are as obvious as they are understandable. Hopefully Folau, though, will be less restless in a desire to seek new challenges. The Wallabies will certainly hope that’s the case.