Israel Folau to show character against All Blacks
For the first time in a professional sporting career highlighted by over achievement Israel Folau finds himself in a "no-win" situation - and not just because he is yet to experience a test victory over the All Blacks.
One of Australian rugby's most talked about players since his switch from league - via AFL - Folau is engrossed in his second full season with the Wallabies, and acknowledges the expectations placed on him are sometimes unrealistic.
Reminded he has not scored a try since the final Super Rugby regular season fixture against the Highlanders on July 6, the 25-year-old shrugs as he prepares for his fourth appearance against the All Blacks in Saturday's Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship opener at ANZ Stadium.
Although he still ended up the joint highest try-scorer with 12 alongside the Crusaders' Nemani Nadolo, Folau was aware his reputation as a big game player had been compromised because he failed to score against the Brumbies, and a week later in the final.
"For most people, they probably see those games as (me) being quiet. The only thing that stands out for most people is I'm not scoring tries," he regretted, before the Wallabies had their first training run of the week in Sydney yesterday.
Still, with a Super Rugby title to go alongside his successes with the Melbourne Storm, Queensland's State of Origin team and the Kangaroos, Folau took a rare scoring lull in his stride.
He was, after all, involved in the match-sealing try in the semifinal win over the Brumbies; against the Crusaders, Folau was at least a distraction in the Waratahs backline when Adam Ashley-Cooper scored twice.
"That's the evidence there that I'm doing my job for the team.
"Looking back at the final against the Crusaders, watching the game over again, I was pretty happy with how I contributed to the game."
"I'm not always getting the ball in hand and scoring tries, I'm creating opportunities for those around me and I'm very excited about that," said Folau, who carries an impressive strike rate of 13 tries in 18 tests into back-to-back clashes with the world champions.
Folau was also enthused about helping thwart the All Blacks' bid for a world record 18 consecutive test victories and believes he is better equipped to contribute than he was 12 months ago.
Introduced to test rugby against the British and Irish Lions in June last year, Folau survived that inquisition before enduring a difficult start to the Rugby Championship under new coach Ewen McKenzie.
Now, aided by the Wallabies seven-test winning streak, he is typically assured.
"My game knowledge is obviously a lot better from playing the game at test level. I'm playing with a free-flowing energy now and not really getting nervous," he said.
Folau revealed a priority in 2014 was to become more involved closer to the action rather than position himself as a finisher.
"I want to ball play a bit more and try to create opportunities instead of waiting for the ball in those wider channels," he said, warning the All Blacks of what to except.
And after experiencing three defeats to the All Blacks last year, Folau also knows what lies in store this weekend, and at Eden Park seven days later.
"They're a team that obviously puts out a 80 minute performance, you can't really make any mistakes because they'll capitalise on that.
"They've got superstars across their team. It's going to be a great challenge for us," he said, nominating Ben Smith as a key threat to be nullified.
"He's definitely a great player in my eyes, he's had a great year in Super Rugby. If you give him space and time he can cut a defence up quite easily." Fairfax NZ