Israel Folau writing his own story

It's a debate that has been raging throughout Australian Rugby this season: just what is Israel Folau’s best position?

This year at the Waratahs he has played regularly at outside centre, and when team-mate Kurtley Beale was injured there was even talk of him moving to inside centre for the Wallabies.

He excelled at fullback in the opening Test of this pulsating Cook Cup series. He began his Test career at wing, scoring two tries on debut against the Lions. Of his 40 Tests, the first five were at right wing, the rest at fullback. Ask Folau himself about the ‘great debate’ and he isn’t taking sides.

"Where I play doesn't really change anything for me personally," Folau said. "I'm really comfortable with where I'm at in the team. It's all about finding myself and providing opportunities for the team, and I'm really comfortable with the role that I have."

That proved the case in the first Test where Folau was regularly spotted in the midfield, making three line breaks, the most on the night. No doubt it will be the same tonight, whatever number he is wearing.

Michael Cheika helped bring Israel Folau to rugby. Photo: Getty ImagesAs for his coach, Michael Cheika, who signed Folau for the NSW Waratahs from the Greater Western Sydney AFL team in 2013, he’s just delighted to have the talented sportsman in his squad – on and off the field.

"I really liked Israel from day one and that makes a difference,” says Cheika. “He's a good lad, a really good person. We struck a good relationship as people, probably more than the coach-player relationship because of what was involved to get him across from AFL."

Folau was an instant success in his third code (he played league from 2007-10) and the successes have just kept coming. He won a Super Rugby title in his second season, a Rugby Championship last year, played in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final and became the first player to win consecutive John Eales medals as the Wallabies best player of the year.

But all the success on the field hasn’t changed Folau off it.

"He takes you on your face value," explains Cheika. "There's no gossiping or talking behind the team. He's a very genuine person and that's what people like about him. It's pretty hard not to like him. In the modern day one of the biggest casualties can be telling the truth . . . and he's very good at telling the truth."

'He's a genuine person' Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyDespite the polished and mature Folau you see today, he actually has a chequered past. During his time at the Brisbane Broncos, the then 20-year-old would spend long nights drinking till the sun came up.

The Folau of 2016 however is very different. He still lives in Kenthurst, a humble suburb in Sydney’s north-west, where he moved after he signed for the Giants in 2011. Whether attending Kenthurst Uniting Church or driving on Mona Vale Road to his favourite spot, Whale Beach, for a flat white and a swim, Folau never gets caught up in the hype of being one of Australia’s most popular footballers.

And there is no doubting his popularity -- just ask the kids! Whenever the Wallabies appear in public, it’s very clear who is the fans’ favourite. Just follow the cries of “Izzy!”.

His exploits on the field make him pretty popular with the older fans as well. But a true mark of Folau the man is that he is just as proud of his series of recently published children’s books as he is of his Test and Super Rugby heroics.

By his own lofty standards Folau had a quiet RWC, due partly to a foot injury, but he has bounced back to his best in Super Rugby this year with 1004 run metres (first overall), eight tries (equal second), 21 clean breaks (equal third), 42 defenders beaten (fourth) and 19 offloads (sixth).

"When you've played 10 years of professional sport at that age,” notes Cheika, “you've got to be a special talent to be able to stay sharp and motivated and keep producing your best. He's certainly that type of guy."

Israel Folau had a standout debut. Photo: Getty ImagesAs for Folau, now in his fourth season of Rugby, he is adamant the passion is still there.

"It's burning and it's very exciting going into another season,” he says. “There are team goals you want to achieve, but I feel if I can achieve those personal goals then it contributes to the way that the team performs. For me, it's about trying to focus on myself, doing the best job I can for the team."

After getting a taste of his first RWC last year, Folau is understandably keen to hang around for the next one in Japan in 2019.

"Being a part of another World Cup is very attractive and I guess we'll see how we go as that time comes around," he says. "I've still got this year and another two more years (on my ARU contract), so that's a long time to go.

“I enjoy playing the game . . . I definitely love it. I haven't really thought past the time I come off contract."

But just how good can Folau be? Can another three years see him join the list of legends like Roff, O’Driscoll, Lomu, Habana?

"He's an unbelievably good player,” concludes Cheika. “When he's finished you'll be able to make all the comparisons you want. For now, he's writing his own story."

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