Israel Folau's debut may be code-breaker

RICHARD HINDS
Last updated 11:53 04/02/2013
Israel Folau
Getty
SOLID GAME: Israel Folau of the Waratahs runs with the ball during the Super Rugby trial match between the Waratahs and the Rebels.

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Yes, it was only a trial game. A cleaning of cobwebs and clearing of throats for the Waratahs and Rebels. A full dress rehearsal performed before a band of enthusiastic, competition-deprived Tasmanians. Yet it was soon much more than that.

The news of Israel Folau's two tries - and a third gifted to a teammate - had barely crossed Bass Strait when the buzz started. Soon, even those rugger diehards with the A$30,000-a-year educations that should militate against such awful puns were posing the question. Izzy that good?

Could Folau be the mystery ingredient that keeps the Waratahs' soufflé from sinking again? The missing piece in the Wallabies puzzle ahead of the British Lions tour?

Or - just as importantly - the superstar athlete who gives a moribund sport the marketing edge it needs to crawl from the bottom of the Australian footballing pile?

It is a lot of weight to put on a man who failed, rather dismally, at his last attempt at playing code-hopping messiah.

But at least, with the Waratahs, the cart is squarely behind the horse. The sudden expectations have been created by an emphatic debut.

Not, as in Folau's AFL dalliance, by the wishful thinking and marketing spin of generous employers trying to sell clumsy misadventure as exciting raw potential.

From first game to last, Folau had looked like a square peg on the AFL's oval field. He did not know where to run to get the ball and, usually, what to do on the rare occasions he got there.

But after his first trial as a Waratah, the seasoned observers were trading lines from The Natural.

The lightning step and evasion. The intimidating speed and power. One Rebels insider likened Folau to a hovercraft, such was his ability to float around the back-field, smoothly accelerating into gaps when the opportunity arose.

When Folau got to the line, he was like the schoolboy star who is just that bit bigger, and better, than the rest. The obvious stand-out on either team, to both the trained and untrained eye.

Significantly, these were not the assessments of wide-eyed enthusiasts, or those with a stake in the code's seven-figure investment.

They came from the career rugby men who had considered Folau a ''high-risk investment''. It says something of his impact that, after just 80 minutes of kick-and-giggle, their stockbroker minds were instead calculating the potentially high yield.

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Oddly, the one doubt raised by astute observers of Folau's debut was his tactical kicking. Two seasons booting the Sherrin have, no doubt, vastly improved his technique. But for a player who clearly relies greatly on intuition, the think music between deciding where to kick the ball and putting it on the boot could prove a problem.

Otherwise, on a weekend when the reshuffle that was supposed to captivate attention involved the federal cabinet, others were suddenly debating the far more significant matter of a reshuffle in the Wallabies' backs. The versatile Adam Ashley-Cooper vacating fullback for Folau? How would that affect Will Genia and Quade Cooper?

Did such thoughts float through Robbie Deans's mind? More likely, the Wallabies coach will have learnt a lesson from Greater Western Sydney counterpart Kevin Sheedy, whose reputation as a sporting seer took a hit with his hucksterish championing of Folau's AFL ''potential''. No doubt, Deans will wait to see whether Folau can butter-knife the Crusaders or the Reds in a real match as easily as he did the Rebels in a jumped-up scrimmage.

Perhaps the rest of us should also take a cold shower. It was merely two tries in a trial against last season's local battler. David Campese, John Eales and Michael Lynagh did a touch more to forge their out-sized reputations.

But Folau has created a sudden sense of anticipation about the start of the Super Rugby season. How long since anyone other than the diehards felt that?

- Sydney Morning Herald

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