Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Folau's X-factor eludes NZ

Blues and Chiefs fail to convince big Australian performer to make rugby union switch.

Israel Folau of the Giants. Photo / Paul Kane
Israel Folau of the Giants. Photo / Paul Kane

Blues coach Sir John Kirwan chased high-profile code-jumper Israel Folau, a player he believes could make a Sonny Bill Williams-type impact in rugby union.

Folau, the former Australia and Queensland outside back, is set to return to rugby league after a two-year stint with Greater Western Sydney in the AFL.

The 23-year-old is said to be poised to sign for the Parramatta Eels for more than $750,000 a season but has had plenty of interest from other NRL clubs, as well as the Blues and Super rugby titleholders the Chiefs.

Kirwan, who named his 32-player squad at a function at Eden Park last week, said his admiration for Folau's talents compelled him to leave a message with the player's agent.

"I didn't hear back so I took that as a no," Kirwan said. "From what I've heard, he's a talented player. A bit like Sonny Bill, it might take him a while to get used to things but it would be worth the wait."

It is understood Chiefs coach Dave Rennie chased Folau until September, when it became obvious the player wanted to stay in Australia. Former league star Williams was a hit for the Chiefs last season before deciding to move back to the NRL.

Folau was a superb finisher at centre or on the wing with the Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos before his switch to the AFL.

The Australian-born player of Tongan descent made his NRL debut for the Storm at the age of just 17, scoring 36 tries in 52 games before moving to the Broncos where he scored an incredible 37 tries in 38 games. At 18 years and 194 days he was the youngest player to make his debut for Australia.

He would have given Kirwan's young team incredible X-factor and crowd-pulling ability.

Folau's willingness to try something new was also attractive to Kirwan. "He's courageous - it was a big move to go to the AFL," he said.

Kirwan's outside back options include Rene Ranger, George Moala, Waisake Naholo and Frank Halai. The latter pair, both sevens experts, will be making their Super rugby debuts. Powerful runner Charles Piutau, who is also a relative novice, is likely to concentrate on fullback.

The Blues coach was philosophical about missing out on Folau, saying he had plenty of faith in his squad, but he confirmed he also tried to attract 100-test former All Black fullback Mils Muliaina, who moved to Japanese rugby after the World Cup, to the Blues. "He has decided his future lies over there. His club [NTT Docomo] have offered him a coaching position, so he will make that transition there." APNZ

- APNZ

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