NSW coach Michael Cheika said throw Israel Folau to the Lions after the code-hopping star inspired the Waratahs to a gritty 25-20 win over the defending champion Chiefs in Friday night’s Super Rugby clash at Allianz Stadium.
A try to replacement hooker John Ulugia four-and-a-half minutes from fulltime earned the Waratahs a thrilling victory after the Chiefs had threatened a spirited comeback win from 15-0 down at halftime.
But the Tahs had man-of-the-match Folau to thank for keeping their finals hopes flickering.
The high-profile rugby league and AFL convert was instrumental in helping the Tahs to their big halftime lead and then produced a series of trysaving plays after the break.
In his most entertaining act, Folau soared high to reel in a pinpoint crossfield kick from five-eighth Bernard Foley to touch down two minutes before the break.
It was his fourth try in his rookie Super season, and third in four games, but first straight from the rugby league playbook, with the Waratahs surprisingly slow to tap into the former Kangaroo’s renowned aerial skills.
“I’m not quite sure why it’s taken us 10 weeks to work out that we can actually kick the ball over to him and he’ll jump up and catch it and score,” Cheika said.
“Maybe it’s my dud coaching, dumb coaching, I don’t know. Maybe the situation hasn’t occurred in the game.
“But it was smart from Bernard because we had the advantage so we had a free shot at it and he put himself in the right spot.
“And if you watch the tape, the catchers are looking at Izzy and not looking at the ball so that’s where he’s in charge of that situation.
“He did very well. He had a very good game … he’s adding a lot.”
Adding so much that Cheika felt Folau was challenging Brumbies revelation Jesse Mogg for the Wallabies’ fullback spot for the series against the touring British and Irish Lions.
“You’ll never know if he’s ready unless he plays. That’s the only way you’ll ever know,” Cheika said.
“In fairness, the kid in Canberra is playing pretty well. But he (Folau) is making big contributions to our team – lots of assists, lots of tackles beaten and he’s starting to get his D right.
“… We’ve got a stack of games to go before that happens and, like any player, if he keeps performing, he’ll be a shout.”
Brendan McKibbin’s conversion of Folau’s try gave the Waratahs their 15-point buffer at the break, but the match turned two minutes into the second half when NSW lock Sitaleki Timani was yellow carded for a high tackle on Tim Nanai-Williams.
The Chiefs immediately capitalised on their one-man advantage with replacement fullback Gareth Anscombe crossing and converting his own try five minutes later.
A McKibbin penalty goal briefly gave the Tahs some breathing space before two replies from Anscombe nudged the Chiefs within five points of the locals.
The titleholders appeared to have stolen the points when prop Ben Tameifuna swivelled his way over under the posts and Anscombe slotted the extras to take a 20-18 lead with the clock winding down.
But with NSW’s season on the line, Ulugia steamed onto a short ball from Foley to score the match-winning try that vaulted the Waratahs to seventh place on the ladder.
The only downer for the Waratahs was the loss of injury-plagued Wallabies winger Drew Mitchell to another hamstring strain and he looks in serious doubt for the team’s two-game tour of South Africa.