Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Weapon of mass rugby destruction

Israel Folau's stride seems a bit longer than that of others, especially when he's beating the tackle. Photo / AP
Israel Folau's stride seems a bit longer than that of others, especially when he's beating the tackle. Photo / AP

No one should feel at ease, least of all the Blues today, when Israel Folau is primed for action.

In a week when the cross-code switch and exit of Benji Marshall brought more unwelcome attention for the Blues, Folau brings his multisport skill to Eden Park.

When the Waratahs lost the freakish talent of Folau for several games this season because of a throat injury, they were like Australia without the fast-bowling venom of Mitchell Johnson.

Warnings about Folau are not restricted to his opponents.

His Australian Rugby Union employers are also on notice and need to be extremely careful.

Folau was seething when the ARU came in over the top of the Waratahs medical staff and pulled him from the match against the Force.

He revealed his displeasure to Fox News while the Roosters have been nibbling away trying to lure Folau back to the NRL.

They know he is disgruntled about a substantial payment promised as part of a third-party deal to transfer to union, and figure he would be a great replacement when SBW disappears.

The ARU and rugby supporters dismissing that annoyance should be reminded about Folau's sporting history, moving from his rugby league roots to the Greater Western Sydney AFL club and then on to union.

He is not afraid of sporting interchange.

Waratahs coach Michael Cheika persuaded Folau to accept his latest code challenge and Wallaby coach Robbie Deans sanctioned the deal as he saw the dangers Folau presented from the back field.

At times he was lost on defence and out of position. But the raw talent kept pushing through and with restricted options, Deans picked him to play his first test against the Lions last year.

Our paths crossed that week in the foyer of a Brisbane hotel as Kurtley Beale, Christian Lealifano and Folau went out for some rest-day shopping.

Folau was an impressive sight at 1.95m and 105kg, affable and chirpy and equally as composed the next day when he was wheeled out to face a multitude of media inquiries. He seemed unconcerned about the questions or the task he faced that weekend.

He scored from a Will Genia breakout then grubber after 13 minutes, got a try-saving hand under George North's lunge at the line then scored a breathtaking second when he beat a rash of defenders.

There were holes in Folau's game, but he was gold for the Wallabies.

As he became more familiar with rugby and worked with new coach Ewen McKenzie, the breadth of Folau's game grew.

He and Quade Cooper delivered growing threats with their combination and unconventional methods.

They wanted to attack with the ball, they wanted to distress defences with their uncommon range of skills.

That theme has followed Folau this season.

His security under the high ball is already legendary and his positional play has improved. When necessary, he can hoof the ball enormous distances but it is his antennae for attack, the instincts to be in the right place for a counter-thrust that make Folau so lethal.

His bounding stride seems a touch longer than that of others to get him through tackles.

Laconic Ocker and now Scotland coach Scott Johnson was staggered when he watched Folau cut up his side last year.

"We like to sit as coaches and take a lot of the credit for it but you can't put in what God left out, and he stood in the front of a few genetic queues," Johnson said.

The Waratahs are not as lethal without Folau to convert their chances. Even a hardened prop like Benn Robinson acknowledges his teammate's influence.

"There are always good players who stand up but for me, when I know Izzy is out there it makes a big difference."

You can be sure the All Black selectors will be scouting that impact tonight - and so will another Izzy, from the safety of his bye chair this weekend with the Crusaders.

- NZ Herald

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