SPIRO: Israel Folau will be a Waratahs and Wallaby star

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    Israel Folau's defection led to plenty of code warring, but was it necessary? (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

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    Minutes after the final whistle of the entertaining friendly between the Melbourne Rebels and the NSW Waratahs, I went across a crowded long room looking down on the ground and asked Rod Macqueen, “What did you think of Israel Folau?”

    “A superb performance,” the greatest of the Wallaby coaches and now a director of the Melbourne Rebels told me.

    And so it was.

    In the opening minutes of the friendly, which was played in four 20 minutes sessions, Folau got the ball about 10m from the Rebels tryline.

    He turned the chance of a try into a certainty with some brilliant play. He took a pass under pressure and surrounded by defenders.

    He spun and twisted out of tackles. He bumped through another attempted tackle.

    And then he hurled himself through a couple more defenders to plant the ball triumphantly across the line.

    He was immediately swamped by his excited, jubilant Waratahs teammates.

    Later on in the match, Folau scored another strong try. He made the final pass for another try and was strong in the air. He was also impressive in the way he placed and presented the ball after he was tackled.

    The main fault in his game right now is that he doesn’t quite understand what to do at the ruck and mauls.

    I noticed early on how he tended to dive over the ruck and lie on the ground, instead of holding his feet and engaging with the opposition ruckers.

    He was eventually given a yellow card by the excellent referee, Angus Gardner, for not rolling away.

    The mauling aspect of rugby will come quickly enough to Folau, I would think.

    When it does he will be the sort of big outside back/fullback Australian rugby has been looking for since the days of Joe Roff.

    My guess is that he will be an ideal, the ideal, addition to the Wallabies, probably as a winger in the coming Test series against the British and Irish Lions.

    The Waratahs, too, under their new coach Michael Cheika, look like a different side from the sullen, negative and passionless teams of the last few years.

    They were enthusiastic, fit, had lots of plays and were very strong with the ball in hand. A couple of new players took the eye, aside from Folau.

    Cam Crawford, who has had one game for the Brumbies and playing out of the Northern Suburbs club, showed plenty of size and pace on the wing.

    On the side of the scrum, AJ Gilbert (Dorrigo High School and Nothern Suburbs) looked to be a lively, confrontational number seven.

    I presume it was Gilbert because there was no list with the players on it. I’m going from the looks of the player on the field and a photo of him (presumably) in a very fine match program.

    The main weakness I saw in his play was a tendency to lose the ball trying to unload in the tackle.

    In the first quarter of the match, the Waratahs were penalised frequently at the ruck and maul.

    It was explained to me that Cheika had given his players the instruction to play to the limits (and beyond) of the laws and then pull back when the players worked out what the referee would allow and not allow.

    This was interesting because Macqueen had told a group of Rebel supporters at a fine lunch at Meadowbank Estate (journalists have to have some pleasures, too) before the match that a lot of work had gone into honing the rucking and mauling techniques of the Rebels.

    At training, the work in this area looked promising. But, as Macqueen pointed out, the test was how the technique would hold up under what was certain to be an assault by the Waratahs. And this is what happened.

    The Waratahs did show a lot of the expected mongrel with their tackles and rucking. The Rebels did well, despite the assault.

    They did even better in the set pieces, with a good lineout (except for a couple of lost long-throws) and an even better scrum.

    With Kurtley Beale resting, the Rebels lacked a bit of spark in the backs. Their big centres didn’t make a lot of impression on the Waratahs defensive line.

    As their coach, Damien Hill, pointed out, the Rebels lost possession or made mistakes eight times in the match when they were within five metres of the Waratahs tryline. This is correct.

    The 24-16 scoreline in favour of New South Wales could have been markedly different if some of the chances, even a couple of them had been converted.

    The Rebels look like they will be a tenacious side and especially hard to beat at home. They are fit following some sessions with the Storm.

    Their set pieces are good. There is a good spirit in the franchise, on and off the field.

    I spent most of match day with Rebel management, supporters and sponsors. They were gracious and enthusiastic.

    It was a fine experience for a journalist to hear what is happening in the franchise and what the hopes are for the future.

    Dr Arnold, the famous rector of Rugby School at the time of ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ was an inveterate traveller.

    As soon as term finished, Dr Arnold had his horse and carriage brought around so he could start yet another trip to the Europe.

    I always think this touring mentality has become part of the DNA of the rugby game. It is one of the game’s most pleasurable characteristics.

    It was in this spirit of touring that we (wife Judy) booked ourselves a four-day stay in Hobart which gave us the chance to go twice to the literally fantastic museum MONA.

    Our hotel provided excellent service and was close to the waterfront and its attractions.

    One of the staff told us on the Saturday that she was going to the rugby with her boyfriend. Afterwards, she said she had a great time and was pleased that her team, the Waratahs, won the match.

    The local television channel ran an item on its 6 o’clock news about rugymania in Hobart, and the huge success of the rugby. 

    The crowd was around 9,000 (not a great deal less than the Storm – Broncos match last year). Even the Premier was in the VIP room watching the match.

    The Rebels – Waratahs match and its promotion was organised by the North Hobart Football Club. The club is 131 years old.

    Its ground is an old-fashioned masterpiece of terraces, a couple of old stands and a more modern (I would guess the 1970s) triple-decker stand with a long room with massive glass windows overlooking a splendidly grassed and marked out field.

    The Rebels spent from Wednesday promoting the ‘rugbymania’ in an AFL citadel of a city. The promotion was a credit to the North Hobart Football Club promoters and to the Rebels franchise.

    The opportunity to mix the joy of watching two good rugby teams showing their stuff and discover an interesting city proved to be a great way to start what is going to be a memorable year of rugby and touring.

    And from a rugby writer’s perspective, there is a great deal of pleasure being able to witness the beginning of Israel Folau’s professional rugby career and the possibility that I (and the other 9,000 spectators) may have winessed the first eruption of a potentially great player.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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