Yep, it’s another article about Israel Folau. I realise that 99.9% of the world’s rugby supporters, journalists and commentators have waxed lyrical about his freakish natural athletic ability, salivating at every outrageous display of skill.
I know the rugby world has been gushing over him like a love struck teenager. But I’m here to say that I’ve booked my seat on the “Izzy” bandwagon.
Hell, I’ll volunteer to drive the thing.
Apart from the obvious attributes that most people see – the devastating feet, aerial prowess, and exceedingly high try-scoring rate – I’ve been most impressed with the speed at which he has learnt the game of rugby, perfecting the fundamentals and especially the knowledge of playing in the so-called ‘specialist’ position of fullback.
As a fellow number 15, I’m aware of the many duties that fall under the job description, most of them unseen by the untrained eye, and know that excelling in that position takes time, patience and hard work.
After just over a year in the game Folau has surprised many, especially myself, at his work off the ball, defensive positioning, high-ball reception and support play.
He has added all this to a kit bag that includes that x-factor that can change matches, which is what ultimately sells tickets and puts bums on seats.
However, to his teammates and coaches, it’s the newly-added nuts-and-bolts part of his game that is most valuable, especially to Australian rugby as we move closer and closer to the World Cup in England in 2015.
It didn’t start this way. After several successful years in the NRL with the Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos, Queensland and Australian representative squads, and a bizarre sojourn in the AFL, he code-swapped again to try his hand at rugby union.
In his first few outings for the Waratahs his line-breaking ability and natural talent were clear, but what stood out more was his naiveté regarding the finer details of the game.
His lack of effectiveness at the breakdown and the ease at which he was getting caught out of position defensively at the back were obvious.
No one expected him to immediately exceed in the dark arts of the game (some of us are still perfecting them), but questions were raised whether the decision to leave a successful rugby league career at such a young age was the right one.
Maybe he was feeling the same too.
In the following few months, and most recently in the British and Irish lions and end of season spring tours, as well as the of start of this year’s Super Rugby tournament, these questions have been well and truly answered.
It’s now the All Blacks, Springboks and northern hemisphere heavyweights struggling to answer the question “How do you stop Israel Folau?”
I saw the 2013 British and Irish Test series as a critical turning point in Folau’s rugby union career, both in the present and for the future.
In the lead-up to the tour, he had consistently improved his all-round game, proving his match-winning ability for the Waratahs in the Super Rugby, and was on the verge of obtaining his first Wallabies cap.
However, he was expected to be prodded, probed, and thoroughly examined in a whole new way by the astutely smart kickers Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, who sought to expose his inexperience at fullback with the contestable high balls and territorial kicks they use so often in the European game.
It was one of a few ploys by the Lions that backfired. Folau excelled in the air, was rarely found wanting in defence, and punished any loose kicking by the tourists with devastating counter-attacks, most notably in the opening game where he was a constant threat.
Granted it was his opposite number, Welsh wizard Leigh Halfpenny, who had a memorable tour, eventually taking home the player-of-the-series award.
But take away his influential goal-kicking and the Lions’ narrow series win, and Folau undoubtedly would have that trophy on his mantlepiece.
He continued this splendid form on the end-of-season tour of Europe, lighting up Twickenham and the Millenium Stadium, and eventually swept up the Super Rugby and Wallabies awards for rookie of the year, as well as RUPA best newcomer.
He’s begun this Super Rugby season in the same devastating fashion, scoring five tries in the opening two games of the competition, as the Waratahs again begin a campaign that promises so much. They rarely deliver, but if Folau, a reignited Kurtley Beale, and a dominant forward pack continue their stunning form, this could be the year of the New South Welshmen.
There is no shortage of fullback talent around the globe: Mike Brown of England, Halfpenny of Wales, Israel Dagg of New Zealand. The fact that Folau stands head and shoulders above them speaks volumes about his status as one of the best players in the game.
That why the Australian Rugby Union was so keen to lock him down for the near future and the forthcoming World Cup.
I’ve also noticed how much he’s enjoying his rugby at the moment, always playing with a smile on his face, and relishing attacking behind a dominant forward pack and a backline that’s been let off the leash by coach Michael Cheika.
I hope he realises that we all feel the same when we watch him play.
Long may it continue.