Can Israel Folau match Karmichael Hunt’s lengthy strides?

Vince Rugari Columnist

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    Saturday was a big day for the two money men poached from rugby league to join the AFL expansion army. Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau both took significant steps forward, although one was a far greater stride than the other.

    Indeed, with one full year of top-flight footy under his belt, Hunt is now the success story of Andrew Demetriou’s edgy code conversion experiment.

    Meanwhile, Izzy is at square one, if not a little further back, trying to emulate his predecessor.

    It won’t be easy for Folau, the former Melbourne Storm centre who hadn’t held a Sherrin until about 20-odd months ago, when the AFL threw a laundry bag full of cash in his general direction.

    Izzy signed on the dotted line like any of us would, and now he’s the face of the Greater Western Sydney Giants.

    Good for him. It’s all rosy off the field, but the time has come for him to at least try to play football.

    Against the Western Bulldogs and Collingwood in the NAB Cup, he was served an entree of the AFL experience. It was a milestone moment in itself, but it also showed how much further he has to go.

    The level of competition he faced was in a completely different stratosphere to the one he warmed to last year in the NEAFL, where he found a niche at full-forward.

    Despite his one-year apprenticeship playing against local teams in New South Wales, what he’s doing now is still completely foreign to him.

    In rugby league, his game was simple. In attack, he received the ball and dodged his way to the try-line, bracing for contact that he was expecting. In defence, he had to stop people in front of him from doing the same.

    Now it’s different. As a spearhead, the hits could come from anywhere. The game happens in front of him, but also behind him, to his sides and all around. They don’t call Australian rules ‘aerial ping-pong’ for nothing.

    All up in his four ‘quarters’ of football against the Dogs and the Pies, Izzy racked up three touches – all handballs, and none came against the reigning premiers. As a result, Operation: Temper Folau Expectations has gone up a notch at Blacktown.

    His positioning was all over the shop. He looked lost, confused, and was probably very frustrated.

    But once upon a time, Karmichael Hunt was in the same boat.

    Not on Saturday morning, though. In warmer climes up in south-east Queensland, Hunt was in his element. It began with Gold Coast’s first internal trial – the probables in red versus the possibles in white.

    Hunt’s first win that day was that he was wearing red, not white. There’s no longer a question of whether K fits in at AFL level in the eyes of Guy McKenna.

    Gold Coast are convinced he belongs. The Suns are now beyond the point where they’d be playing Hunt for promotional reasons. The novelty is long gone. The headlines have all been used up. They’ve got flags to win in the next few years.

    His performance in the scratch match suggests he will be playing plenty of AFL football this season, and all of it on merit. And most of it in midfield, as well.

    The guts is the natural place for the Broncos old boy to be. In his own words: “In my make-up I’m more of a reaction player so being in the midfield, hunting the ball and going after it, I feel more comfortable.”

    But it’s not just a change in position that has helped Hunt grasp the complexity of Aussie rules. Perhaps he’s been assisted by the knowledge gleaned from his childhood flirtation with the sport. Folau never had that base to build on, not matter how flimsy.

    And on top of that, Hunt is now leaner and meaner. Say goodbye to K the beefcake – not only is he now built for the roving, mobile nature of the AFL, but he’s also kept his mongrel. You can just imagine some of his big hits being used as the perfect foil for the Suns’ gentler on-ballers.

    Izzy, too, has dropped a lot of weight – but Hunt’s dedication to his fitness, to learning his new craft, to becoming the best he can be has impressed just about everyone who’s crossed his path.

    That includes his teammates, who voted him onto the Suns’ leadership group on the weekend. You need no further endorsement of the man. Last year, those same players would have been entitled to ask what Hunt had really done to earn his spot in their squad ahead of bone-a-fide footballers. Now he is one.

    A world-beater? Maybe not. But a good, solid contributor. That’s all you can ask for.

    Hunt faced the same challenges that Folau now has before him. The same need for spatial awareness, the same jarring adjustment period, the same task of completely rebuilding his body for a brand new sport, the same mental challenges.

    But was Karmichael an exception?

    Is he just a freak, both in mind and body? Remember his seamless transition into rugby union before he joined the Suns. Hunt is a born athlete, and has proven his adaptability.

    Folau has been blessed by the gods as well, in terms of physique, but taking the raw tools and turning them into ability is far easier said than done. A lot has to go right.

    Can he do it? Nobody really knows for sure. But if he needs any inspiration, K is a model example.

    Vince Rugari
    Vince Rugari

    Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard of the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. A Port Adelaide fan by birth, he now is a sports reporter for Australian Associate Press