Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has revealed how he "would have loved" to sign Wallabies star Israel Folau, and interest levels were high enough that Folau's eligibility for the All Blacks was looked into and the parties met in Sydney in August 2012.
"We just heard a whisper that he was maybe looking to get out of Aussie rules and looking to have a go at rugby," Rennie told Fairfax Media about the trans-Tasman trip to meet Folau with Chiefs assistant coach Wayne Smith, four months before Folau announced in December he had signed with the NSW Waratahs.
"We went over to have a chat to him in and around one of the Bledisloe Cup games [in Sydney]. He's a good man and a hell of an athlete. We would have loved to have brought him over."
At that early stage, the Chiefs were investigating a deal for Folau without the involvement of the New Zealand Rugby Union, Rennie said, but any potential move for the brilliant code-hopper - whom they saw initially as a winger - was scuppered by Folau's lack of direct eligibility.
"So for him to come here [New Zealand] and be eligible for the All Blacks immediately, he needed to have some sort of parentage lines, and he didn't have that," Rennie said.
But asked whether Folau was interested in moving to New Zealand and potentially representing the All Blacks, Rennie said: "Yeah, I think he would have been. But [without direct eligibility] he would have had to wait three years before he could play [under IRB regulations], from a residential point of view, so it was probably never going to happen."
By the end of last season, Folau had established himself as one of the world's best attacking players from fullback, but the Chiefs had intended to use him on the wing, initially at least.
"He was always going to be a good option at fullback, but we were thinking about wing initially until he got his head around the game," Rennie said. "He's obviously played a fair bit at wing [in league]. There's a fair bit of positional responsibilities at 15, anticipating the game, and he still has a bit to go there."
While the prospect of Folau even thinking, even in a hypothetical scenario, of playing for the All Blacks would be enough to make Wallabies fans feel ill, the reality of the player market and relatively porous sporting borders means instances of players being courted by clubs in different countries, and looking at those options, are not uncommon.
The Melbourne Rebels had recently failed in a bid to lure exciting young Hawke's Bay and Maori All Blacks No.10 Ihaia West across the ditch, Rennie confirmed.
"That tells you about the character of the kid, too," Rennie said of West's decision to knock back the Rebels. "So it's not based around money."
The Rebels have been very active in recruiting players from all over the world with ties to Australia, and the "developing player" contracts in Australia are also available to target promising players from New Zealand and South Africa, in particular, with more lucrative deals they are getting at home.
Although West did not initially secure a Super Rugby contract in New Zealand, the Chiefs moved for him when a few holes appeared in their back line, and he is very highly rated in his homeland. A departure to Australia would have rattled more than a few cages.
"It's a lot around opportunity," Rennie said of West's decision to turn down the Rebels. "He [West] had a chance to come up here with Gareth [Anscombe] being injured and Aaron [Cruden] being away on leave, to spend a bit of time in our evironment so we've got to know him a lot better, and we're really impressed with him. He's a hell of an attacking force."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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