NSW consider John Folau to fill Taqele's big shoes

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

Why limit yourself to one Folau when you can have two?

That is the question the Waratahs are pondering after bringing John Folau, the younger brother of star fullback Israel, into their pre-season training squad.

Unlike other Australian Super Rugby franchises, NSW are entering the 2019 season with a relatively stable squad and minimal recruitment.

But there are a handful of spots yet to be nailed down and the biggest gap left by a departing 2018 player - quite literally - is the wing vacant of giant Taqele Naiyaravoro.

The 125kg winger is now playing for Northhampton in England and given he scored a Super Rugby-high 15 tries last season, replacing him is no small task for Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson.

John Folau. Photo: Clay Cross/SportspicsThe Tahs have brought into training a number of aspirational candidates, including John Folau.

Twenty-four-old John carries a very similar physical stature to his sibling Israel, and is being viewed as a player of huge raw potential. 

The big outside back played three seasons at the Parramatta Eels before deciding to switch to rugby like his brother.

John was in the Sydney Rays squad this year but injury limited him to just two games. In those appearances he managed to score several tries, and convince Waratahs coaches he would be worth a more in-depth trial during summer training. He is not contracted.

As an assistant to Waratahs coach Michael Cheika in 2013, Gibson was one of the men who helped Israel Folau make a swift conversion from league instincts to rugby.

"We have lost Taqele and he was the leading tryscpver in the competition last year and replacing him is a challenge for us. He will leave a hole,” Gibson told RUGBY.com.au.

"Part of our pursuing Adam (Ashley-Cooper) and wanting him to come back and join us again is the fact he would give us that utility value in the backline. 

"That would allow us to play different combinations on the wing, so we look at someone like Curtis Rona, who played all season in the centres as someone who could play on the wing.

“And we have started training with John Folau, to see where he can get to as a player, we believe he has that raw athleticism and the potential to be a handy attacking threat. 

"And we have some younger players coming through the system who we believe, given the opportunity and chance, could really become something, too.”

John Folau, who is expected to play for Parramatta in the Shute Shield, is certainly keen to push on and eventually earn a Waratahs cap alongside his brother Izzy.

Taqele Naiyaravoro fended off George Bridge. Photo: Getty Images“I've always wanted the opportunity to one day play alongside him on a team and he says he loves it in rugby union,” John told RUGBY.com.au in September.

“So having the opportunity to come over, God willing, the opportunity does arise and that makes the journey a bit more exciting for me.”

“For me, coming over here it's like a fresh start, something I think I needed,” John said..

“Growing up playing league my whole life, it was something I was just getting used to but coming over here put me out of my comfort zone."

The Waratahs’ only other positions of need are at lock and prop, given the retirement of Paddy Ryan and the injury-enforced absence of Tom Roberston. The Wallaby did an ACL recently and is not expected to play for the first eight weeks of the competition.

Apart from 33-year-old Sekope Kepu, the Tahs have a stable of four 21-year-old front rowers.

The Tahs are also close to securing 135kg South African lock Le Roux Roets to play an abrasive “Jacques Potgieter-style” second rower role.

But the Tahs are otherwise not bringing in many new players and that’s by design, Gibson said.

"In my experience as a coach, the winning teams are the ones that can retain a stable and experienced spine throughout the years,” he said.

"You have got to have, and it is something the Crusaders have done very well, is you have to have the players of their generation, of the decade, and they keep them together for a long time.

"That’s something we have managed to do with the spine of our players and it’s about making sure the change around that spine doesn’t occur every year.

"We believe we are in a nice stable period this season."