For most people, turning out in the top division of their local league is a great achievement. Some may realise their childhood dream of representing a professional club and maybe even their country. A select few have the skills required to excel at two sports. Then there is Israel Folau – the man who has played in the top leagues of Rugby League, Aussie Rules and, most recently, Rugby Union. Fans of the Lions may not have heard of him, but they soon will, as he was recently named in the Wallabies 25 man squad for the upcoming Lions Tour.
So who is Israel Folau? Well, he has recently been in scintillating form for the Waratahs, helping them notch up some impressive and nail-biting victories from his berth at fullback. In fact, his performances have been so outstanding that he now looks like a certain member of the Wallabies team for this summer.
Perhaps we should start from the beginning, for it is not in rugby union that Folau began his career – it was in the other form of the game, the one that rugby union fans can at times look down their noses at. After debuting at age 17, Folau went on to become one of the most devastating players rugby league has ever seen, winning the premiership with Melbourne Storm and becoming Australia’s youngest ever international, making his debut at the age of just 18. After having an even more impressive stint at Brisbane Broncos, and winning his 2nd State of Origin series with Queensland, he had completed everything he could have dreamed of, which was probably the reason he made the shock switch to that funny game they call Aussie Rules (or AFL).
Shock is perhaps an understatement; Folau had never played the sport before and was moving to a sport where kicking is perhaps the most important skill to have, something he had not done a lot of during his time in league. Cynics would point towards a mutually beneficial partnership that saw Folau become one of the highest paid players in the game and saw the AFL steal rugby league’s star player, a great marketing tool in the highly competitive Australian sports market.
So, aged just 22, Folau found himself with a four year, $6 million contract with Greater Western Sydney. Unfortunately, his time playing in the AFL was not as glittering as his league career, with Folau only making 13 appearances and struggling to adapt to the different rigours that the code brings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he decided that rugby was more his thing – although he wasn’t going back to his roots, but to the NSW Waratahs in the Super 15.
Since changing codes, Folau has rediscovered the form that led him to become a star in rugby league. In just eleven games, Folau has already run in seven tries and helped the team to some great victories, leading a resurgence that has seen them win their last three games, including last weekend’s come from behind win over Aussie conference leaders the Brumbies. He leads the competition for number of runs and metres made and is in the top five for tries, offloads and try assists. These performances bring us up to date in the career of Folau, and are the reason why he already has one foot on the field for the opening game of the Lions tour.
So why should the Lions be afraid? Well, there are many reasons, simply due to the fact that he is one of the stand-out athletes of his generation. Perhaps the main one though is his size – he stands at 6ft 5ins and has the power to match this physique. So what though? After all, there are plenty of rugby players with this height. That’s true, but there aren’t many who can match this height to the kind of blistering speed exhibited by Folau, meaning that he can run past, or through, nearly any player facing him in the world. Comparisons to Lomu might be premature, but they could one day be made, such is Folau’s potential. At times it is hard to believe he is still in just his first season of rugby union and even he admits that he still has many aspects of the game to learn.
When you look at the Lions squad it is tough to see a player who could stand up to Folau. As with all players, there is bound to be a weakness to Folau somewhere along the line, but the fact that he has only been playing union for a short while is perhaps his trump card – Warren Gatland simply won’t have had the time to analyse him and come up with plans. So, the Lions will have to play it by ear and see what they can do – a plan that can only play right into the hands of Robbie Deans and his Wallabies team.
By Ilan Hurwitz
Ilan runs the Australian web site Football Jerseys Online where you can purchase Jerseys from the most popular teams including the British & Irish Lions & the Wallabies.