Can Israel Folau match Karmichael Hunt’s lengthy strides?

Vince Rugari Columnist

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    Israel Folau (Slattery Images)

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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

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    The Crowd Says (46)

    • February 21st 2012 @ 6:00am
      toa said | February 21st 2012 @ 6:00am | ! Report

      Izzy will be fine none the less a very good read.

    • Roar Guru

      February 21st 2012 @ 6:21am
      MyLeftFoot said | February 21st 2012 @ 6:21am | ! Report

      Not so much of a freak.

      Keep mindful of the job (granted, easier in respect of being a tall ‘tall’ and ‘only’ transitioning into the ruck) that Canadian RU convert Mike Pyke did. And Pyke didn’t have the benefit of slotting into a brand new team that really was playing the first year purely for experience and not results.

      Folau has that benefit this year. Because of his elite sport background – it’s probably fair to assume that he’ll improve across the year – and, like Hunt – if he works hard then it will ‘click’.

      Good article though – and it reasonably summarises just why it isn’t easy. Hunt and Folau have taken the money but taken an even bigger challenge that puts their own credibility on the line.

      However, I can’t help but ponder – what would there boys do with their improved fitness base were they to return to RL? Would they revolutionise the game like another Aust Footy experience lad did about 100 years ago named Messenger??

      • February 22nd 2012 @ 5:50pm
        toa said | February 22nd 2012 @ 5:50pm | ! Report

        Converting from an NRL team to a foundation French RU club only to excel in both the game & key position is mind blowing. I believe several established NRL players on long term contracts fail to reach what k achieved in 6mths including speaking french.

        Everyone is built differently we tend to mimic what we see,read & hear about the advantage Izzy’s body type is compare to karmichaels figure and Vince has got right. After adjustments physical perception equates to nothing unless you have the ability to process information.

        I like Izzy a lot but like Mike Pyke and other football converts karmichael is wire differently. How can someone hold his nerve & continue to improve when just about everyone is trying to rape your reputation? Personally I hope they enjoy the financial benefits that comes with the job because you wont find me doing it. The thought of Jonathan Brown running towards me…. ah no thanks.

        If I’ve learnt anything from this transition to date it’s how difficult & unrewarding playing in the back line is. Rumor has it Izzy was about to opt out his contract due to difficulties he was experiencing playing as a backmen & karmichael reportedly doesn’t seem to be the same player he was 6mths ago.

        My predictions is izzy will if not before come right by round 5.

    • February 21st 2012 @ 8:11am
      Jack said | February 21st 2012 @ 8:11am | ! Report

      Hunts rapid transformation from rugby league to hold down the fly-half position at Biarritz in rugby union is evidence of a remarkably talented, canny and dedicated footballer. The codes are very different, a fact lost on most AFL fans and pundits and the responsibility and pressure on a fly-half really only has a football equivalent in the quarterback in American football.

      In my opinion, the lad’s not utilising himself well enough in AFL – he should be playing for a Super Rugby team and the Wallabies. AFL fans should know that Hunt could be pulling in double the salary playing Rugby in Europe. Whatever his motivation to play AFL money is not the prime reason.

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2012 @ 5:27pm
        Vince Rugari said | February 21st 2012 @ 5:27pm | ! Report

        He’d probably do better at rugby union than what he’s capable of doing in AFL, but I know he enjoys the club, the area, his teammates, the challenge, the money of course. Plus he’s got a baby on the way I think. It’s all a perfect fit for him.

    • February 21st 2012 @ 8:59am
      Ian Whitchurch said | February 21st 2012 @ 8:59am | ! Report

      Jack,

      The disposal skills – the ability to identify the open man, or the space the open man will be in when the ball arrives – needed by ball distributors in rugby union and American football are needed by almost all players on an Australian Rules paddock.

      Hunt’s disposal skills, when presented with a reasonably obvious situation, were pretty good last year – he has good, fast hands.

      Izzy has a different set of problems – he must be that open man, or the man that gets into the space, or the man who creates the open space for someone else to run into.

      As someone who watched the trial games from near the forward pocket, I actually thought Izzy’s positioning was pretty good, and his forward pressure was excellent. He ran to space, he made leads, and in doing so he cleared the space that led to a goal.

      He was also awful early last year, but got better.

      Im confident the same thing will happen this year, and it’s notable that Rodney Eade liked what he showed on Saturday.

      http://www.foxsports.com.au/afl/afl-premiership/former-western-bulldogs-coach-rodney-eade-says-critics-should-not-write-off-gws-recruit-israel-folau/story-e6frf3e3-1226276406578

    • February 21st 2012 @ 9:06am
      TomC said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:06am | ! Report

      I think the jury is still very much out on Hunt. 8 possessions a game isn’t much of a return.

      • February 21st 2012 @ 9:19am
        slickwilly said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:19am | ! Report

        using possessions as a sole indicator of a players worth in games of australian football is a misleading

        • February 21st 2012 @ 11:25am
          TomC said | February 21st 2012 @ 11:25am | ! Report

          I think it’s a fair reflection of his output in this case, willy.

          • Columnist

            February 21st 2012 @ 5:23pm
            Vince Rugari said | February 21st 2012 @ 5:23pm | ! Report

            Should have seen the internal trial, TomC. I know the level isn’t great but he did really, really well.

            • February 21st 2012 @ 11:03pm
              Phelpsy said | February 21st 2012 @ 11:03pm | ! Report

              I was there too – he seems to have adjusted- althoughh still looks to give off as first option – whih isn;t too bad a thing but maybe predictable. I was near him at the interchange with my boy – and gee he is one muscle bound fellow – and also a leader – telling people what to do etc.

            • February 22nd 2012 @ 9:14am
              TomC said | February 22nd 2012 @ 9:14am | ! Report

              I’ll have a good look at him against the Lions and Dees on Saturday night.

              • Roar Guru

                February 22nd 2012 @ 9:50am
                The Cattery said | February 22nd 2012 @ 9:50am | ! Report

                Looking forward to seeing how Hunt has progressed over the pre-season. He now has two pre-seasons under his belt, he’s entering his third season of Australian Football, and by all accounts, his engine is getting up pretty close to AFL standards, such that he can finally have a run in midfield.

    • February 21st 2012 @ 9:59am
      Strummer Jones said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:59am | ! Report

      In Israel’s case, it was a case of picking yourself up, and moving from one place across to another land, and then trying to claim it as your very own. I am not sure how successful this will ever be. Additionally, some believe Israel was always only after one thing; the money. Money money money they say. And this, again many say, is been clear for a very long time. I don’t mind Israel. The achievements to date are something you have to respect. But this constant fighting with Palestine….

      • February 21st 2012 @ 10:36am
        hog said | February 21st 2012 @ 10:36am | ! Report

        And what would any normal person do when offered 1 mill a year to play a sport, can you blame izzy no matter what happens hes gonna end up pretty well off.

      • Roar Guru

        February 21st 2012 @ 10:43am
        The Cattery said | February 21st 2012 @ 10:43am | ! Report

        Don’t forget Strummer, as Seinfeld once said, it’s humour that has kept us together as a people for 3,000 years.

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