Rugby: Team in awe after Folau shows off skills

Rugby league clubs are chasing Israel Folau. Photo / Getty Images
Rugby league clubs are chasing Israel Folau. Photo / Getty Images

It was on the strip of turf just outside the Sydney Cricket Ground on what is called 'The Bus Loop' that Israel Folau first produced a moment of such breathtaking skill that left those who witnessed it in no doubt the former rugby league and Australian Rules footballer had the potential to become a world star in rugby union.

Not for the first time Folau was attempting to prove to new team-mates at a pre-season training session that he had the skills to play their code of "footie".

He had joined the Super Rugby side the New South Wales Waratahs last December in an attempt to revive a career that had stalled during two tough seasons in the Australian Football League, playing for the Greater Western Sydney Giants.

If there were those who doubted whether the switch to a third code in as many years was ill-advised, Folau's flash of genius had even the established Wallabies in the Waratahs gaping in awe.

"A ball was kicked and he chased it but looked certain to go into touch but with a miraculous act of skill, he not only retained the ball but somehow flicked it back to a player in support 15-metres infield," recalled Alan Gaffney, the Waratahs backs coach. "It is very hard to describe the incident but the level of skill required to do what he did was such that everybody at the training session, including the international players, stopped and applauded. It is a special moment from a special player.

"This boy is going to be a superstar. He was at a very early age in rugby league and if he stays in rugby union he will be one of the best we have seen for some time."

And Gaffney knows a player. The former Munster head coach, who went on to become a technical director at Leinster and backs coach at Ireland between 2008 to 2011, is famed for having helped bring through former Wallabies stars such as David Campese, George Gregan and the Ella brothers during his time as coach of the Randwick club in Sydney. Gaffney admits there were some teething problems with Folau with regards to the laws of the game and his positioning, but says the key to the 24-year-old's rapid rise in rugby union, which culminated in his two-try debut for the Wallabies against the British and Irish Lions in Brisbane last Saturday, was his eagerness to learn despite all he had achieved in rugby league.

"He just wants to learn. He is not a know-it-all and also is prepared to help others in areas that he can," Gaffney said. "We tried to make the transition as easy as possible in terms of the laws and he only needed to be told once if he made an error and he didn't make the same mistake twice.

"It is not take, take, take. He has a Christian upbringing and there is nothing I can say that you could possibly dislike about him."

Folau's voracious dedication and commitment was also apparent during his time in the AFL.

Kevin Sheedy, the legendary AFL coach who spent three decades in charge of Essendon, says Folau's eagerness to develop his game after four seasons in rugby league had been key returning to his home city. "Israel was an extremely intelligent athlete who was excelling at NRL and was an enormous coup for us when we signed," said Sheedy.

"He created probably at least AUS$10 million of publicity for our club in the first 12 months. It was a huge landmark move for a player from the NRL to move to the ARL in Sydney. It would be like a US basketball star going to play soccer in England."

Folau's problem was that while he had the skills and physique to play Australian Rules Football, he struggled with the relentless physical demands of the game, which lasts for two hours and involves constant running and jumping to challenge for the ball.

"When he came to us he was looking for a change and I think he felt the AFL would really challenge him physically," added Sheedy. "He had to work very hard to get up to speed and was still doing so when he left and he would have been a much better AFL player in the next two years but we lost him.

"I think what he took from our game was learning to kick better and learning to have a bigger engine, which means he has the capacity to run all game." Sheedy perhaps paid Folau the greatest compliment by proclaiming him as the prototype footballer capable of playing all three Australia codes.

"The only thing he hasn't done is be a goalie for the Socceroos but he has got the speed to get from one post to the other and he can jump well above his height," added Sheedy.

"He is 195cm, his jump is unbelievable and his hands are imprints of the Grand Canyon. They are monster hands, when he grabs the ball you can hardly see it."

If Folau's experience in rugby league and Australian Rules football has given him the skill set to become one of the biggest names in world rugby, the Australia Rugby Union now face a battle to secure his long-term future, with a number of rugby league clubs eagerly offering substantial packages to woo him back to the NRL.

Gaffney however believes the experience he has gained already in facing the Lions is likely to prove decisive in Folau's decision about his future.

"This series has put him on the map on a worldwide stage now, not just in Australia."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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