Izzy ready for Lions challenge?
The 24 year old who has played rugby league and Aussie Rules makes his debut for Wallabies
Welshman George North keeps his eye on the ball as he tries his hand at hurling during the British and Irish Lions training session held at the Anglican Church Grammar School in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Israel Folau’s stunning rise from rugby union debutant to Australian international in four months has thrust him into a baptism of fire against the British & Irish Lions in the first test in Brisbane on Saturday.
The much-hyped 24-year-old will run out at a heaving Lang Park on the wing, a position largely foreign to him in the 15-man code, to face off against dangerous Welsh flyer George North and a starting side boasting more than 700 caps.
The soon-to-be dual code international can expect special attention from the Lions, who will be eager to ensure his test debut is memorable for all of the wrong reasons.
“We know what a quality player he is, an absolutely outstanding athlete,” Lions coach Warren Gatland told reporters in Brisbane today.
“It’s probably the hardest position on the field to defend so there’s no doubt he will receive some sort of attention defensively to see how strong he is at that.
“He’s gonna pose a big threat and I think the battle between him and George North is going to be worth the price of the ticket alone.”
The man least likely to be fazed by the attention is Folau, a powerfully built and explosive runner who has hogged the limelight Down Under throughout a roller-coaster career spanning three football codes.
Born to Tongan parents and raised in a fringe suburb of Sydney, Folau’s journey has been punctuated by great first impressions, big money deals and sudden career U-turns that have caught sports administrators on the hop.
It began with a match-winning try on debut as a 17-year-old in Australia’s top-flight National Rugby League (NRL), where he became an instant pin-up boy for the world’s top 13-man competition after scoring a record amount of tries in his first year.
At 18, he became the youngest player to pull on a Kangaroos jersey when he was picked to play New Zealand for Australia’s national rugby league team.
But with the world at his feet, the player nicknamed “Izzy” sensationally walked out of his NRL career in 2011 to try his hand at the bone-jarring indigenous code Australian Rules.
Money undoubtedly played a part, and Folau was slammed by critics as a mercenary for drawing a huge salary in the Australian Football League (AFL) his high profile was seen as a powerful weapon to chip away at the dominance of rugby league in Sydney’s working class west.
The move was calamitous for all parties, however, with Folau failing to master the code’s intricacies and leaving the competition two years into his four-year contract.
Folau appeared set to head back to rugby league after being linked to a number of NRL clubs, but surprised with a defection to Super Rugby’s New South Wales Waratahs in December last year.
Shrugging off a fresh round of skepticism from local pundits, Folau scored a try the first time he donned a Waratahs jersey in a pre-season match in February, and playing at fullback for the Sydney side, is currently the equal-top tryscorer in the southern hemisphere competition as it nears the end of the regular season.
“It’s certainly up there with what I’ve achieved in the past with rugby league and AFL,” Folau told reporters in Brisbane of his Wallabies selection.
“It’s funny that this time last year I was playing AFL. But I have not regretted anything, it’s been a great journey and Saturday night’s going to be the start of a big one for me. I can’t wait to get out there.”
South African World Cup-winning coach Jake White, now mentor of Super Rugby’s ACT Brumbies, said last month that Folau’s selection for the Lions test series would devalue the Wallabies jumper and not all pundits have applauded the move.
But the prospect of Folau storming down the wing has excited former Wallabies scrumhalf George Gregan, Australia’s most capped player.
“It’s a huge first test playing against the Lions ... but he’s used to playing big matches, I think he’ll respond very, very well,” Gregan told host broadcaster Fox Sports.
“I think it adds a nice sort of X-factor and a matchwinner for the Australian team.”