Waratahs face up to life without Izzy in a season-defining week

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

Life without Izzy.  

Away from all the headlines and raging debates, that’s the reality the Waratahs must now come to grips with when they return from a bye-round "weekend off” and take to the training field on Monday. 

And then, five days later, out onto the SCG to meet the Rebels. 

The chances of Folau playing for the Waratahs again appear remote but the last week has been nothing if not wildly unpredictable.

The next phase is expected to be the issuance of a code of conduct breach notice to Folau.

Israel Folau. Photo: Getty ImagesBut with due process steps, a hearing and Easter and Anzac Day breaks all in the mix, finality could be some time off.

Folau won’t be playing for NSW while it all plays out.

Less than an hour after reports on Friday night indicated he may keep playing, NSW quickly issued a press release correcting the record, saying Folau was stood down “from player duties until further notice”. 

The move made sense, not least to avoid the media circus that would have unfolded at Waratahs training on Monday morning. 

If there is anyone who needs to get down to business quickly in the wake of the Folau saga, it’s the Waratahs.

With impeccable timing, this week has suddenly loomed as the round which could make or break NSW's Super Rugby season.

Ahead by seven points in the Aussie conference, the Rebels missed their chance to kick 11 or 12 points clear of NSW at the weekend by losing to the Stormers, and the Tahs can get back in touch with a big win. A loss will give the Rebels a big lead in the run home, and with NSW still to travel to Africa.

The Waratahs are expected to get captain Michael Hooper returning to the team after sitting out a Wallabies rotation week.

The Waratahs say they'd be open to resting national players if asked. Photo: Getty ImagesBut what impact will no Israel Folau on the team sheet have on the Waratahs for the Rebels’ clash, and in all probability, the rest of the NSW season too? 

Folau is one of NSW's best players but the prognosis is not as grim for Tahs fans as you’d think. 

The Waratahs have actually made a good fist of playing without him since 2013. 

Without Folau on the field, the Waratahs managed to still win 62% of their games, compared to 57% with Folau playing. 

Now, admittedly, the “no Izzy” sample size is very small. One of Folau’s most under-rated strengths has always been durability and he only missed eight games from a possible 104 in his seven seasons 

But it does point to some small level of adaptability that coach Daryl Gibson will hope can continue. 

Indeed, Gibson will further hope the experiences of last year will be of assistance to his team in coping with the attention and scrutiny that will now descend on them; with Folau at training or not. 

The Waratahs want to keep Israel Folau. Photo: Getty ImagesIt was in the first week of a month-long hamstring injury last April that Folau first posted controversial comments on gay people last year, and his teammates had to handle the fall-out in his absence. 

It wasn’t a welcome duty but the Waratahs still went on to win two of their next three games, and Gibson later said the intense spotlight actually helped bring the team closer together and to sharpen their focus. 

But while some, like Rod Kafer argued on FoxSports, believe Folau’s absence won’t derail the Wallabies, the Waratahs can’t escape the fact he’s been a prolific attacking force in sky blue. 

And that output must now be replaced. 

In what shapes as having been his final Super Rugby match, Folau scored his 60th career try against the Blues and broke the record for most Super Rugby tries, edging past Doug Howlett. 

In seven seasons, Folau has accounted for 16% of all the Waratahs’ tries, or to put it another way, one in every six NSW tries has been scored by Folau. 

He’s finished top try-scorer in the competition twice and second once, and among a range of other statistical milestones, Folau has never finished outside the top five for most offloads and been in the top three for defenders beaten three times. 

Most players would be happy to record 60 metres carried a handful of times a year. Folau averaged 84 metres per game across his 96 appearances. 

Simone set Folau up for a near-try on Thursday. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleySo Gibson must find those tries, offloads and valuable run metres elsewhere. And given he was already down the 15 tries scored by Taqele Naiyaravoro in 2018, it’s far from ideal. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, those tries are tied to greater levels of success. 

In a game where Folau scored, the Waratahs’ win rate went up to 61% and when he scored more than one try, the win rate went up to 85%. 

The likely scenario is Kurtley Beale will play at fullback, with Karmichael Hunt and Adam Ashley-Cooper in the centres. Curtis Rona, Cam Clark and Alex Newsome are the likely wing choices, but interestingly, John Folau is also in the equation for promotion given his brother’s situation.

Gibson and his crew also have bigger picture concerns to address with Folau absent. 

The Waratahs had decided to invest heavily this season in Folau’s ability in the air, and had put him bang in the middle of their gameplan. 

The Tahs had been kicking far more this year to play in their rivals’ territory, and the use of contestable high balls for Folau to chase, had been both noticeable and successful. 

Both in the mid-field and, when possible, attacking the line too. Folau’s record-breaking try against the Blues came from a kick. 

Whether it takes only tinkering or a total rip-up-start-again approach, the Waratahs must now figure out how to live without Izzy. And quickly.