Israel Folau hopes to emulate SBW's union feats
They're already accused of displaying the same supposed character flaws - and now Israel Folau hopes to emulate Sonny Bill Williams in a positive way by making a successful transition from league to rugby.
Folau officially joined Williams as one of Australian sport's most polarising professional footballers yesterday when confirming a one-season deal with the New South Wales Waratahs.
A coup for the underachieving Super Rugby franchise, Folau filling the final roster position for 2013 is also a bitter blow for a league fraternity that expected the former Queensland and Kangaroos centre to sign with Parramatta once his Aussie Rules experience ended last month.
With Williams signing with the Sydney Roosters, and Parramatta expected to welcome Folau back to the fold it was assumed the superstars would collide at the Sydney Football Stadium on April Fools' Day.
Instead they share the same home ground and will re-educate themselves in training bases alongside each other at Moore Park thanks to Folau's shock decision to follow in the footsteps of Lote Tuqiri, Wendall Sailor, Mat Rogers and Timana Tahu, league converts who used the Waratahs as a stepping stone to the Wallabies.
Rumours of Folau's latest career change emerged at the weekend and he fronted a media inquisition flanked by Waratahs chief executive Jason Allen and new head coach Michael Cheika at NSW's rugby HQ - a raking touch-finder from League Central.
There were no snipers on the roof of the Australian Rugby League Commission and NRL base across the car park though Folau is acutely aware his character has been assassinated by sections of the league community - a backlash reminiscent of the criticism Williams copped when deserting the Canterbury Bulldogs for French club rugby midway through 2008 season.
Folau was castigated as "disloyal" and a mercenary and league's new public enemy No 1 after allegedly reneging on a vow to join Ricky Stuart's new regime at Parramatta Stadium.
The softly-spoken 23-year-old was soon on the defensive, insisting he never pledged to play alongside close mates Jarryd Hayne and Tim Mannah in 2013 and beyond.
"I didn't promise anything. As I said when I left the (Greater Western Sydney) Giants, I was keeping my options open and looking at rugby league and rugby," he said.
Folau rejected claims he had not consulted Stuart before committing to the Waratahs saying: "I met with Parramatta on Friday, met them face to face and told them what my decision.
"That's how I operate, I have nothing to hide."
Folau clearly has a strident defender in Cheika who opened the announcement by praising his new recruit's character and disregarding scathing assessments of Folau's values.
"I used to coach a team (Leinster) that was called the 'lady boys' in Ireland and we ended up winning the championship and the European Cup. It's just part of the deal. It hurts and you've got to get back up and get on with it," he said.
Contract details remain confidential but Folau's deal is reportedly in the range of $A250,000, less than a quarter of what he would have commanded as a born-again league player.
He last played rugby at high school and his homework begins at training tomorrow, where former Crusaders assistant coach Daryl Gibson is also introduced to the squad as a backline co-ordinator.
Folau's initiation will focus on the back three, a tough area to break into considering Drew Mitchell, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Lachie Turner are already on the books.
Asked if he was inspired by Williams' ultimately successful stint with the All Blacks Folau replied: "Yeah, absolutely. I know he had a difficult transition but he's come out the other end and what he's achieved has been a credit to him."
There was no sidestepping another inquiry about his devotion considering that premature exit from the AFL, and Folau insisted he would persevere even if he couldn't crack the Waratahs' match-day squad.
"One hundred percent. I'm totally committed to play the best I can when the opportunity comes."