Should Izzy go home to the NRL?
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GWS Giants forward Israel Folau (Slattery Images)
Is it time for Israel Folau to go home? Should he leave behind the skinny red ball he has never looked comfortable holding, pick up the chunky white one he grew up with, and return to rugby league?
On his NRL debut at Melbourne’s Olympic Park in 2007 Folau scored the match winning try; a magnificent feat for a 17-year-old.
Just as amazing, considering his present struggles, was the way he scored it. With the MCG – where Folau had began to watch and grow fond of AFL – as a backdrop he soared high above his squat ground-based opponents taking a spectacular “mark” and executing the putdown that would seal the game.
If anyone had asked themselves at that instant: “Could this kid play AFL?”, the answer would most likely have been in the affirmative.
Five years later, however, it has become apparent that if any player could have been plucked from that Melbourne Storm side and made into an AFL superstar his name would have been Billy Slater, or perhaps Greg Inglis, but not – unfortunately – Israel Folau.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to be a successful AFL player”, said the quiet barnstorming centre on announcing his move to Aussie Rules.
Firstly, that has meant transforming a body that was built for short bursts of brute strength, into the lithe construction of the modern AFL footballer. To his credit he has probably succeeded as far as nature will allow. Craig Bellamy ran into his slimmer former charge recently and said he hardly recognised him.
With a league ball in hand Folau was an intimidating mixture of power and athleticism. Those T-rex thighs enabled him to plough through multiple tackles and to leap above defenders near the tryline.
His weakness was a lack of sideways movement and elusive skills hence he was a relatively poor defender and, unlike his fellow champion teammates Slater and Inglis, rarely scythed his way through opposition defences.
Even more significant though is his poor aerobic capacity which was a problem at the Storm, according to Bellamy. It’s a huge liability in the AFL.
It’s interesting to note that Folau’s coach Kevin Sheedy while at Essendon was poised to release Jobe Watson in 2007 due to his bulk and lack of aerobic fitness. As we now know Watson transformed himself into a star using a tortuous fitness regimen.
Folau could draw inspiration from Watson’s example but Watson has played AFL his entire life.
Adapting mentally to the game has caused Folau huge problems; having to re programme his mind that is attuned to the grid-like game he has played since childhood.
Folau has often looked all at sea in the middle of the frenetic and unrelenting activity of AFL – looking to lay single powerful tackles when he can. He will improve as time goes on but it’s unlikely he’ll ever be a significant force in the game.
He came to AFL for a number of reasons. Six million dollars over four years being the main one – not because he’s a mercenary but to support his family.
He wanted a challenge because success came too easily for him in league, and the grass probably seemed greener on the field of another code.
But when a superstar of league leaves to play AFL curtain raisers at Skoda Stadium, neither sport benefits.
For the sake of both codes perhaps it’s time for Izzy to go back to the NRL, where he belongs.
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