GWS lost by 74 points to Hawthorn on Saturday, but such is the magnetic nature of Israel Folau, most talk out of the game centred on his outstanding second half.
So, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s notorious Jekyll and Hyde, two personalities emanating from the same man, it appears there are now dual versions of this ex-rugby league superstar at AFL level.
The first is a repressed, even timid, and uncertain, player, one who lacks confidence and conviction, struggling to make an impact. The other is the supreme athlete, a high-leaping contested marker of no small ability, and a ferocious tackler who wants to break bones and earn free kicks, but either one will do.
If we look at his three NAB Cup matches in chronological order, then we are compelled to talk about the negative first.
In both of his round one matches, and the majority of the first half against the Hawks, Folau was, for all intents and purposes, a non-entity. Despite a couple of handballs, the odd tackle, and a glimpse of the athleticism for which he is renowned, he looked as out of place as an Essendon supporter at a humility convention. Or, more pertinently, a Brisbane Bronco in an AFL jumper.
There were the poorly timed leads, the misjudged leaps, and the lack of awareness in regards to where the ball was going, and what to do when it arrived. Admittedly, the delivery to him on many occasions was less than precise.
For someone entering the game with limited experience, the forward line is the hardest place to do it. As a key position player, it’s even harder still. It is easier to destroy than create, easier to stop than start, easier to defend than attack.
The old cliché is that defenders are simply the footballers who didn’t make it as forwards, and it has long been accepted that centre half forward is the hardest spot on the ground to play at AFL level.
There is leading up the ground and back, double and triple leads in an attempt to lose your defender for a crucial half step that will enable you to take the ball uncontested if you get your timing right (timing which can elude even the greatest players from time to time).
One needs a combination of mobility and strength, the endurance to run an opponent ragged, but the power to take pack marks against four opponents. It is hard enough for a 22 year old who has been playing the game all his life to do it, let alone one who hasn’t.
An apt comparison in this regard might be Carlton’s Lachie Henderson, traded to the Blues as part of the deal that sent an ill-fated Brendan Fevola to the Brisbane Lions. The same age as Folau, he is 196cm and 95kg, which is comparable to Izzie’s 195cm and 100kg (and I figure that the latter will drop a few kilos as his aerobic capacity increases).
Henderson was targeted as a forward, but couldn’t quite make the grade, and this was in a side that had been playing finals football. Last year he blossomed as a key defender when circumstances dictated a move to the back half.
For Folau, who has played fewer games of Australian Rules than the average Victorian 12 year old, the enormity of the task he faces can’t be underestimated.
So in light of the preceding, let’s examine his second half against the Hawks, and more specifically, his impressive third quarter.
After noting Izzie’s struggles in the first half, coach Kevin Sheedy pulled out the time-honoured move of putting his key forward into the ruck. Not only did it give the impressive Jonathon Giles a chop-out, it got the six million dollar man into the game.
Despite giving away a free kick due to a lack of awareness, he competed and contested. Sometimes in football, it is enough to feel the crunch of battle-hardened bodies on your own.
Having had a run on the ball and being shifted back forward, with 11.42 left on the clock in the third term, the crowd was set alight. Leading hard to a Stephen Coniglio bullet, Folau was able to mark under pressure and a cheer went up of the warm, not the bronx, variety.
Three minutes later, Adam Tomlinson sent a driving ball into the forward pocket. After initially looking out of position, Izzie athletically leapt across the front of two players, and ahead of his opponent, to again take a strong contested mark. His short pass found its target, so a score assist was also registered to the big man.
Inspired by a couple of grabs, Folau found himself in the play again not two minutes later, applying a well-timed, bone-crunching tackle on Hawthorn’s Kyle Cheney, winning the free kick from a somewhat generous umpire. He kicked at goal tentatively, pulling it and missing from 35m out on a 60 degree angle, but if contested marking and defensive pressure inside fifty is what is asked of any key forward, then the GWS number four was delivering.
Next up was his best mark of the match, with five minutes left in the quarter. With the Giants winning the centre clearance, Folau again led hard, and Matthew Suckling was wearing him tight.
With two players running back with the flight into his space, Izzie jumped high, clunking another one, turning his body just so to keep Suckling at bay.
This time he pushed the kick, but in seven minutes of football, he had announced to the world that he was here to play, not just to take the money and run, as had been speculated in some quarters.
This short burst had netted four kicks for 0.2 and an assist, three contested marks, a tackle and a free kick. He had married an obvious will to compete and his inherent athleticism, with a natural talent for marking the ball under pressure at its apex that is harder to learn than it is to teach.
Folau finished off the match with another nice mark across half forward in the last quarter, and with the benefit of a 50m penalty, was able to kick truly for his first goal of season 2012.
His teammates came from everywhere to mob him, despite the 12-goal deficit on the scoreboard, in a display of unity and team spirit that will go a long way.
In summary, Israel Folau has not arrived as an AFL player, and in fact has hardly begun his journey. There will still be times when Dr Israel goes an entire half without touching the ball, we will often see his name at the bottom of the disposals list when we look up the stats, and I don’t want him on the bench in my Dreamteam, but there are going to be times when Mr Folau lets the instinctive, athletic animal inside him out.
When he does, he may take some stopping.
Unlike the characters who inhabit Stevenson’s world, we want to see more of the Mister and less of the Doctor.