On the field, Israel Folau’s AFL career can be described as a flop, an abject failure, a horror show, a waste, a disaster … you name it.
After just 13 games and an almost nonexistent highlights reel, these adjectives are 100% on the money.
But there’s a few – or more precisely, a lot more than a few – people willing to brand Folau’s entire AFL career as these things.
Both the on- and off-field aspects, apparently, have been a flop or failure or disaster.
Some of it is part of the senseless cross-code point-scoring that goes on these days. Some, though, is from fans of other AFL clubs who never took the time to understand why the game would go after an NRL player.
Either way, to brand the entire experiment a failure is wrong.
Folau had already repaid what the AFL invested him in with the publicity his signing generated. If the league were to take out advertisements on all the property media outlets gave to Folau and the Giants in the ensuing couple of days, the total cost would equal if not exceed Folau’s contract.
The publicity, be it good or bad, did not stop after two days, either. There was a lot of the bad, it’s true. “$6 million, 80 minutes … 3 touches,” was The Australian‘s headline after … wait for it … a NAB Cup game.
But let’s be honest, in what other circumstances would a NAB Cup game generate anywhere near the same kind of attention?
There were other advantages to having someone with that profile, too. School visits that would’ve otherwise had kids scratching their heads or counting down to recess were instead massive occasions that had kids in awe and prompted more interest in the Giants.
Sending a couple of first-year players no one in the assembly hall had heard of before would not have made the same kind of impact.
There were commercial benefits, too. Given the Giants were unable to land a big Gary Ablett-type fish, Folau was a player that many fans latched on to.
Kevin Sheedy tweeted the following in September: “Interesting fact – 72 per cent of Giants jumpers sold this year have number 4 on the back. That would be Israel Folau.”
This proves Folau’s off the field impact was so much more than just the publicity he generated those first two days of wearing a charcoal media polo.
It doesn’t cover up what happened on the field. Folau scored two goals in his 13 AFL games as a forward. Even Karmichael Hunt scored one in his debut year, and that was as a defender.
In truth, there were a number of factors that held back Folau on the field. His size meant he was always going to take longer to develop than Hunt. Think how long it took another big man, Mike Pyke, to transition from a similar sport.
There was the footy “nous” that was lacking and a struggle to grasp some of the game’s more fundamental skills.
The other glaring concern was his passion for the game which, as Folau admitted yesterday, wasn’t there.
An underrated factor is that he entered the competition, just like Jack Watts, at a time the game moved away from the “key forward” towards the “power forward”. The shift made Watts, the best junior for his age, look woefully out of his depth on an AFL field. It even made a champion, Nick Riewoldt, go from 9-10 marks and 2-3 goals a game to looking decidedly more human (he averaged 7 marks and just 1.6 goals in 2011 and took even less marks in 2012).
Folau is the same height as Watts and Riewoldt and even though he’s a bit heavier than them, it’s clearly not because of his arms.
But this was just one factor along the journey. The significance of it was that it was one that couldn’t be foreseen.
That it would be a long transformation was always evident. That passion for the game would need to develop goes without saying.
Ultimately, though, while Israel Folau may have been an on-field flop, that shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of how this experiment is measured.
He played a big part in ensuring the Giants’ media relations efforts weren’t a flop.
He played a big part in ensuring many community or school visits weren’t a flop.
He played a big part in ensuring guernsey sales weren’t a flop.
Frankly, he even played a big part in ensuring people knew who the Greater Western Sydney Giants were. Ensuring they simply had a presence.
If the Giants failed to at least tick these boxes, we’d all be talking about a much more significant flop than the one we are today.
For that, the game has a lot to thank Folau for.