The recent series against England wasn’t a particularly memorable one for Australian rugby. Not only did they fall to their first ever home series loss to the old Northern Hemisphere enemy but they suffered a whitewash. Three-nil to the English.
However, good players and coaches are always able to take positives from any defeat. A clear one from what were three seismic and engrossing Test matches in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney were the performances of one Israel Folau. A man who again lived up to claims that he is one of the, if not the, premier and most exciting back in world rugby union.
The Wallabies may have gone amiss at crucial times against Eddie Jones’s men in what was a fiercely fought series but the Folau factor was evident throughout. He caused the English defence all manner of problems throughout and demonstrated many of the qualities that make him an ideal example for youngsters hoping to make their way in the game as an explosive and expansive back. He scored two tries and would surely have had more if not for England’s brilliant defence in all three matches. He was a constant handful when running with ball in hand, making tries as well as scoring them. His running lines, quick feet, superb hands, athleticism and outstanding habit of claiming high kicks, both attacking and defensive, were all on show. If you had to argue for one player who didn’t deserve to be on the losing side Folau would be a strong candidate.
Folau made his name in rugby league and Australian rules football before seamlessly converting to union. Indeed he broke the National Rugby League record for the most tries scored for someone in their debut season when playing for Melbourne Storm and even performed for Australia in the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. Despite his influence in the 13-player format, particularly during a spell with Brisbane Broncos, he then opted for a spell in Australian Football League with the Greater Western Sydney Giants, all before his first electrifying strides in union.
It is the pre-union experiences of Folau that have made him such a well-rounded and versatile player and such an instant success in the union format of the game. Indeed he impressed so much at his new club, the NSW Waratahs, that within a year of Super League rugby he was playing for the Wallabies in the 2013 British & Irish Lions series. He just happened to score twice as part of a sensational debut. In three years of international rugby union he has to date scored 30 tries in 70 appearances. At club level he has scored an astonishing 35 tries in 59 matches, breaking the all-time NSW Waratahs record. Over the last domestic season he ran more metres than anyone else, was equal second for tries scored and equal third for clean attacking breaks. In his short union career so far he has already won a Super League title, secured a runners-up medal from the 2015 Rugby World Cup and become the first player to win back-to-back best Australian rugby union player of the year awards.
It is the versatility of Folau that makes him such an intriguing player. Many international players can perform well in a couple of different positions but is there any in world rugby who look so assured in so many as the man from New South Wales? The difficulties coaches have had in finding the best position for Folau come from him playing so well in all of the roles he has been given. His first five international caps came on the right-wing but the rest have all been as a full back. Yet for his club he is equally as devastating as an outside centre. Imagine having a player who is such a danger in so many different positions?
One should also acknowledge the part of Folau that spectators and fans can’t see which been significant in his rise to being one of the game's top players. Like all of the sporting world’s highest performers, Folau is not just naturally talented but exceptionally hard-working and focused off the field. Many lessons can be learnt from the way he handles and prepares himself. He is a man well-liked by players and coaches alike for his down to earth and diligent attitude to his trade, leading by example by always committing 100% to every training session.
The innate ability of Folau to put himself into open space and beat opposition defenders will see him go down in history as one of Australia's most effective attacking weapons. It is remarkable just how much he has already achieved in rugby union. And at 27 years of age he will be terrorizing defences and pleasing spectators for a little while longer yet.
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