Bernard Foley putting best foot forward for Australia

Wallabies outhalf has made 10 jersey his own with some stellar showings at World Cup

Bernard Foley attributes big part of his development as a player to his involvement in Sevens rugby. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Bernard Foley attributes big part of his development as a player to his involvement in Sevens rugby. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images


Bernard Foley chuckles while recounting a story about unsolicited advice he received at a family do the day after he’d struggled with his placekicking in a Super 15 rugby match. He had been playing for the Waratahs against the Rebels in the season just gone and had kicked just one from five attempts.

His 20-year-old cousin Tim, who suffers from Down syndrome, sidled up and explained to the Wallaby international the flaws he’d noticed. “He told me to relax, be calm on my approach, and kick through the ball. He’s taken credit for any improvement,” Foley smiled.

In the Rugby World Cup to date, Foley has landed 17 of 19 kicks at goal and scored 56 points in three matches. He produced a virtuoso display against England, bagging 28 points, including two tries in a 33-13 victory. He entered the tournament vying with Quade Cooper for the number 10 jersey; any debate now would be a shortlived discussion.

Family – he is one of six siblings, three boys and three girls or “The Brady Bunch” as he refers to them – is important to the 26-year-old, which was evident in a tale from his teenage days he was invited to reprise.

His dad Michael, a lawyer who had coached him for 10 years from the time he took up the game as a four-year-old, was recovering from open-heart surgery when he persuaded his wife to sneak him out of the hospital so that he could watch his son play club footie for Redfield College.

Foley, 14 at the time, wasn’t surprised to see his old man on the touchline, because he rarely missed a match. Towards the end of the game he caught a stray boot to the body. It hurt but, although winded, he thought nothing of it and jumped into the car taking his father back to hospital.

During the journey he started to feel very ill and vomited. He was admitted to hospital and underwent some scans but it wasn’t until he provided a urine sample that he really got really scared. There was blood, lots of it. “They found out that I had a rupture in my kidney.

“The doctors said if the cut had been half a centimetre longer they would have had to remove my kidney. I spent 12 months out of contact sports.”

It was a cruel punishment for a kid who loved sport. “At some stage I had sport on seven nights a week, much to my sisters’ and mum’s disgust as they had to run me around. But, yeah, I loved playing all sports: cricket, soccer, rugby, basketball.”

He’s not the only one. In the summer, his older brother Conor played gridiron for Australia in the American football World Championship in Ohio, two years after taking up the sport. He’s previously played wing and centre in rugby but successfully becoming a running back in his new sport. Now he is playing professionally in Germany for the Dresden Monarchs.

Economic degree

Foley went to school and university in Sydney, where he got an economics degree and it was while he was playing Colts rugby for the latter that he was picked up for the Australian Sevens programme.

It’s easy to appreciate how Sevens helped refine his game: he plays flat, has a beautiful appreciation of how to create and exploit space, is assured in his handling and intelligent in his running lines. He is a good defender too.

Those who argue that the abbreviated code is not compatible with the 15-a-side – the IRFU is only recently receptive to the developmental value of Sevens – or not beneficial as a pathway would take a contrary view to Foley. He is a passionate advocate.

“It’s definitely been very beneficial for me. It was great to play in some of the coliseums of rugby and also to hone in on your basic skills. You need great skills in all facets of the game otherwise you get found out; so it was a really good learning experience for me and put me in good stead for where I am now.”

Foley won a silver medal in Sevens at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and was honoured with the captaincy in the second of his two seasons with the national squad. The Waratahs recruited him in 2011, and the following year, he spent a season at fullback prior to Michael Cheika’s arrival in New South Wales in 2013.

In the same year he made his debut for Ewen McKenzie’s Wallabies against Argentina but arguably the most acclaimed moment in his career prior to the World Cup was when he posted a 40-metre plus penalty with 30 seconds left in the final to win the Super 15 title for the Waratahs in a 33-32 win over the Crusaders.

His then team-mate and fellow Wallaby Nathan Sharpe gave him the nickname ‘Iceman’. Foley ventured that he preferred the character ‘Maverick’ in the Top Gun movie, believing that ‘Iceman’ dies in the film. He doesn’t.

Foley came into the World Cup in slightly indifferent form but his response has been unequivocal in quality terms. Nudging Foley’s in the right direction and a providing sounding board is backs coach Stephen Larkham, the outhalf when Australia last won the World Cup in 1999, and Foley’s hero growing up.

Temperamentally they’d be pretty laid back. Larkham’s nickname during his playing days and one he still answers to is Bernie, the title character from the film Weekend at Bernie’s. Larkham played without a pulse.

“He was the number 10 in the Wallaby jersey for a long, long time. He was definitely an inspiration of mine, someone I looked up to.

“He’s been very good, been here before and has so much experience as a player and now a coach. The knowledge he passes on to me is invaluable.”

He is surrounded by clever direction from his halfback partner Will Genia to Matt Gituea at inside centre. Giteau in particular has been able to spell Foley as the first receiver, both in defence as a left-footed kicking option and attack. “As a playmaking group we have to function well.

“That is what we have been working on every training session, trying to improve the combination, improve our relationship, so it is pretty intrinsic to our movements and our calls on the field.

“Matt brings a wealth of experience. It’s been great to work alongside him. To bounce things off him has been really beneficial and hopefully puts this team in a really good position.

“He can always step in there and run the show from first receiver of second flyhalf. I think his left foot has been invaluable for us. Having those different options and keeping opposition defences guessing in the backfield.”

Family tree

Relationships are important to this squad. One of the first things that Cheika did when he came in as coach was to introduce a culture of what it meant to be a Wallaby international on and off the pitch. He got the players to complete a family tree so that they would understand each other’s background.

Foley explained: “I won’t give it all away but it is more about an identity of who you are and where you have come from; to look at places where your family came through, where your parents grew up and where you grew up. It helps the team to understand everyone’s pathway and where they have come from.”

His surname betrays his Irish heritage, something his dad, Michael, is both passionate on and knowledgeable about. He’s got Cork and Munster roots and reckons the family has been in Australia for three generations. He’s never been to Ireland but if a couple of quarter-finals go a particular way, Ireland may come to him.

In talking to any Australian player during the tournament there is a common thread to the conversation. The Wallabies have an insular outlook in preparing for matches; perfect practice makes perfect in matches. It’s all about the group.

“Personally I have been lucky enough to score a number of points but it’s a team effort and the hard work the team has done and what they have come through in those games is probably more satisfying than individual points scores.”

Foley, part of one big happy family, on and off the pitch.

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