Israel Folau has always been a Rugby ‘freak’, who can make the unbelievable come to fruition on the field, but on the eve of his 50th Test, he says he’s developed a new facet of his game.
When he walked into the Waratahs ahead of the 2013 season, he proved his skills, picking up where he had left off in Rugby League almost three years earlier.
“He's a natural freak. I remember the first day he came into Rugby, his first day after not picking up a ball for a couple of years and he was throwing flick passes and spiral passes over 20 metres,” Wallabies flyhalf Bernard Foley recalls.
A debut on the wing against the British and Irish Lions came roughly seven months later, yielding two tries, the start of the second-quickest journey to 50 Tests of any player, behind only Wallabies flanker Michael Hooper.
Folau has started every Test he has played and missed just three possible matches through his run to 50, an ascent that Foley says makes him one of the great players of their generation.
“He's probably a guy that you'll speak about and tell your kids that you played alongside because there's things he can do on the footy field that no one else can,” Foley adds.
“For a guy like Israel, he's had a lot of challenges, a lot of setbacks and a lot of external pressure but he always drives himself to be the best that he can be.”
Folau admits the gravity of that initial series was lost on him on that first night in Brisbane, his focus purely on making a good first Test impression.
“It was a huge campaign for us as a team. I didn't actually realise how `big' the occasion was playing against the Lions, only ever coming around every 12 years so I was pretty lucky to be a part of that,” he says.
“I just wanted to make the most of it and I haven't looked back since. It's been a building block for me ever since, wanting to get better as I go out there each game to play.” - Israel Folau
The past year has been one of his more difficult in a Wallabies jersey but Folau says it has allowed him to think beyond his own game and begin to help the next generation of Wallabies flourish.
“I think when I get in those challenges like I did this year, I think shifting my focus away from myself and trying to help the younger guys within the team...that kind of takes your mind off the challenges that you're going through, which is something that I've been trying to work on and it's been helping me out a lot,” he said.
Leadership, at least in a traditional sense, is not something that feels natural for Folau but as the Wallabies move into a period of renewal, it’s an area that he has grown into.
“I think it does [come naturally] in my own type of way and probably not in a way that a normal leader would probably lead in terms of speaking in front of the group and that,” he says.
“I think I do a lot more privately away from the main group on a one-on-one basis.
“It's come over time and with the experience that I've had under my belt, it's something that I've learned from previous guys that I've played with and I guess it's something that you mature into as you get a little bit older and have had those years in your career.”
His obstacles have become easier to overcome, given his desire to keep Rugby as just one part of his life.
“I think I've always looked at footy as more of a secondary sort of thing, part of my life,” he says.
“Everything outside of that has always been most important to me and I don't count myself or see my identity as being a football player.
“I think it's obviously what I do on a daily basis and something that I really love but i'm not getting too carried away with soaking all my energy up in thinking about footy.” - Israel Folau
Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia played alongside Folau on his debut and says the hype around Folau contrasts with his humility.
“He’s a special player and I think something that I really enjoy about him as a player but more so as a person is he's so humble,” he says.
“He can be the quietest guy in the room while being the biggest star in the room. He's a good person and an outstanding footballer. “
All of the Wallabies’ Spring Tour Tests will be broadcast LIVE on beIn Sports and streamed LIVE on Foxtel Go (for Foxtel subscribers).