New Waratah sets sights on Wallabies spot

BLUE TO GOLD: Israel Folau hopes his performances for the Waratahs will put him in contention for the Wallabies.
BLUE TO GOLD: Israel Folau hopes his performances for the Waratahs will put him in contention for the Wallabies.

Israel Folau hasn't played rugby union since high school but the 23-year-old Waratahs recruit has set himself the goal of playing for the Wallabies against the touring British Lions next season.

''A British Lions tour doesn't come around very often, so when it does it is a massive occasion, and for me, if I am involved in playing those games, it would be exciting,'' Folau said.

''It is definitely at the top of the list to want to play for your country but that comes afterwards, because I want to focus on playing good footy for the Waratahs first.''

If he does, Folau would become a dual international after representing Australia in league. It was footage of him playing State of Origin and for the Kangaroos that convinced Waratahs coach Michael Cheika he was the x-factor the team needs.

Still struggling to believe his luck after being approached three weeks ago when Folau was beginning to fear a deal with Parramatta would not eventuate, Cheika said the 23-year-old was likely to play fullback for the Waratahs next season.

''It sort of just happened by accident,'' Cheika said. ''I met him and got to speak to him a bit more about rugby in a bit more detail, and that was probably about the time things were starting to stall with Parramatta.

''We had one contract left [on the 2013 roster] so I had to make sure it was the right person and right addition to the team. This was all about making sure we had a player with x-factor and someone who could be a game breaker, and I felt he had the capability [to do] that.''

Cheika said he spoke with Folau four times and they discussed the Wallabies performances in Europe, while the coach also watched footage of the former Queensland and Australian winger in action before he switched to AFL two years ago.

''We started talking about who was doing what and I think he got a taste for it. Negotiations were pretty easy,'' Cheika said. ''There is no way I would bring someone into the group if he did not have the same values. I hadn't seen a lot of him because I was away [coaching in Europe] when he came on the scene and was successful in rugby league, so I dusted off a few tapes and he looked really good.''

While Folau doesn't start training with the Waratahs until Thursday, he believes adapting to the new code will be easier than AFL.

''I guess you could say rugby league and rugby union are similar games, whereas you can't compare it to AFL, which is a totally different game, so I would like to think the transition won't take as long as it did with the AFL,'' he said.

Folau said he would never have been in the position to choose rugby union if Parramatta had been able to deliver on his expectations when he secured a release from his contract with Greater Western Sydney..

However, the Eels had only $110,000 to spend under the salary cap and NRL salary cap auditor Ian Schubert insisted that Folau be valued at $400,000 - resulting in an offer of $350,000 that was dependent on another player agreeing to a release.

Schubert's assessment was changed last Wednesday to $250,000 but by then it was too late and a frustrated Folau said that he was impressed by how much easier negotiations with the Waratahs.

''It took a while for me to understand why the process was taking so long and that is why I started to talk to Michael [Cheika]. When I spoke to him everything fell into place and they got something done pretty quickly.

''Obviously, I came out so late and announced I was quitting AFL and at this time of the year most clubs didn't have much space in their cap so from my point of view I couldn't wait any longer and sit around. For my own security and future I had to move forward and get something done.''

Sydney Morning Herald