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By The Roar
Fan article originally published on The Roar's sports opinion website. Submit your own rugby article to The Roar for potential publication on Rugby.com.au.
I’m staring at a Waratahs jersey on the Fox Sports rugby landing page. It’s not Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tatafu Polota Nau or Drew Mitchell wearing it.
The head poking through that sky blue collar is that of Israel Folau.
Today at work I had two conversations about rugby with people passing in the corridors.
One was with a South African I know supports the Stormers. Commiserations were shared.
The other was with a guy I’d only seen at company-wide meetings.
When I bumped into him he was yelling at someone about whether to pick the Roosters or the Bulldogs in his tipping comp. I pulled my earphones out just in time for him to see me and ask who I was going to pick.
I respectfully explained that: a) I don’t really do tipping comps as I never remember to submit the tips (until I did every week for last year’s Super Rugby and won!); and b) I don’t follow rugby league closely enough to have a fighting chance.
My deflection ended with, “I’m a rugby fan. The Tahs I mean.”
His response was fired back almost before I finished, “Oh, he’s better at league isn’t he?”
“Folau. He was such a good league player. You’re lucky. He’ll just get better.”
Why thank you very much. It is indeed lucky to have one of the youngest to play for the Kangaroos running back kicks and generally making his presence felt for the Waratahs this season.
My new friend is a Polynesian rugby league supporter, whose family plays rugby league now at junior level. When he was a kid his family played rugby.
Folau is a link back to rugby for him. He and his kids are aware of Folau. Fox Sports knows this – that’s why he’s on the background of their Super Rugby page.
Earlier this week a New Zealand site published a yarn that was fairly critical in tone – without completely sticking a neck out – of the expensive price Israel Folau commands from the Waratahs and the ARU.
The article is full of fairly true to form Kiwi sarcasm. They explained that Folau earned $43,000 against the Hurricanes and went on to say “Not bad for 80-minutes ‘work’ at the Cake Tin is it?”
Another line stood out: “The ARU clearly doesn’t mind a flutter. Like dabbling in blackjack Folau is no sure bet.”
Here’s where the real “Izzy worth it” question comes to roost. Has the gamble paid off yet?
Folau has now scored three tries for the Waratahs.
On the weekend Folau showed what sort of strength he has by literally powering over the line while being closely marked. That sort of try would surely have Waratahs fans licking their lips.
One thing I’ve noticed about Folau is his body height going into contact is still probably a bit high. But as he hits the line it’s like he throws his upper body down and forward.
He must have great upper-body strength because this tactic has meant nearly every time he takes on the line it’s bending backwards despite having the theoretical leverage advantage.
Against the Hurricanes only Julian Savea had more carry metres than Israel Folau. Folau out-gained Bernard Foley, Drew Mitchell and the great Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Some have pointed out that Folau has a tendency to run across the field to look for the support of his wing mates instead of taking on the line when returning kicks.
My first point would be that linking up with support seems like a highly intelligent standard move in the back three.
Secondly, Folau doesn’t just amble across the field and give the ball to Mitchell and see where it leads.
Often Folau is giving more space to Mitchell to run by drawing an extra man, or he passes early to wrap around and support Mitchell. That combination was very effective against the Hurricanes.
Contrast the Waratahs counter-attack against their output against the Force a week earlier. I’ll take the ‘going across the field to kick start a counter-attack with Drew’ version myself.
On defence, the only full back in the Australian conference that completes a higher percentage of his tackles is the solid James O’Connor.
Folau is better than Beale by far and better than Mogg by a little.
If we extend the field to other notable back three players, Folau makes his tackles stick 20% more than Alfi Mafi, 19% more often than Drew Mitchell and 16% more than Joe Tomane. 10% more than Digby Ioane as well. No complaints from me.
Folau’s average run length is around 9.5m, which compares very well to all the best Australian outside backs and leaves Ioane, Speight, Tomane and Kuridrani behind comfortably.
He also, with Ioane and Mafi, is in the top echelon of overall carry numbers. He obviously doesn’t just give it to Drew too often.
And this runs nicely into an eye test that I can’t back up with numbers too much. It seems like the vast majority of Folau’s touches come either returning kicks or in support.
It would be great to see Folau receive the ball a bit more often in regular back line moves.
Not all first phase, but certainly in positions so he can do what he did to the Hurricanes. Folau has the strength to be an ‘in the line’ back, not just a broken play runner.
It could be partly due to taking a while to learn the game and get into the right positions as well. I’m looking for that to change though.
Add Folau being fantastic under the high ball. Thank you, Mr Sheedy and Mr Demetriou.
For mine, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say Folau has improved greatly in his short time at the Waratahs and is already a success on the field about as much as one man can be.
Away from the numbers (thanks to WOLF for adding to my statistical analysis by giving me a handy-dandy spreadsheet that puts lots of numbers in once place) and the tape and Folau is a success of the field too.
I hate to keep rabbiting on about it, but rugby needs personalities.
Folau seems to be a sturdy young professional, more stable than the three amigos (can’t believe I just wrote that). He’s the kind of person rugby should be happy is getting some of the spotlight.
Blokes in the corridor know who Folau is. They also know who he’s playing for.
Tomorrow at work ask the guys trying to pick between the Roosters and Bulldogs whether Michael Cheika should re-sign Kane Douglas.
Just make sure you have something else to follow the question with because you’ll need to fill the silence yourself.
One other phrase stuck out from the article, “If Folau isn’t selected for the Wallabies this year…” I think Folau is quite close to deserving a Lions squad call-up.
I wouldn’t, but purely based on form he’d be right in the picture.
That would suggest, if things stay on the same trajectory as they are, Folau would have a great chance to be named in the Rugby Championship squad or Spring Tour group this year.
An interesting comment made by ARU CEO Bill Pulver is that Wallabies who want to may make themselves available for the Olympic Games sevens team for Brazil.
I wouldn’t bet against that decision being tailored to interest Folau either.
Going back to the blackjack analogy, I’d be willing to argue, at the cost of $700,000 for this year, the ARU and Waratahs have been dealt two eights so far.
Every good blackjack player knows what to do when that happens – split’em and double down.
Do what it takes to sign him again.
*Disclaimer - Views expressed within this story are not necessarily the views of the ARU or rugby.com.au