The Iceman joketh: Foley on why time out of the Wallabies made him a better player

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

If there was any doubt about whether Bernard Foley still had some of that ice in his veins after a winter in the Test wilderness, a black eye resolved it.

The black eye was Foley’s. How did you get it, someone asked at a Wallabies press conference.

"It was Christian, Christian got me,” Foley replied, deadpan.

The ‘Christian' was Christian Lealiifano, who Foley had just replaced in the Wallabies’ starting side to take on Wales in a huge World Cup clash on Sunday.

Had the fight for positions inside the Wallabies become so intense it was now UFC: Selection Wars?

"Nah, I'm joking,” Foley laughed. "That was just a bit of friendly fire at training.”

The real culprit, it turned out, was Jack Dempsey but if Foley kicks goals and steers for the Wallabies against Wales as confidently as he sold the gag to a room chock-full of the world’s media, Michael Cheika will be a happy man.

The fact Foley was put in the room, and in the starting no.10 shirt, by Cheika is one of the bigger developments of a Wallabies’ World Cup campaign that’s already had its fair share of headlines.

After being a standout star for the Wallabies in the 2015 World Cup, and a near-permanent presence in the Wallabies fly-half seat since, Foley has been dealing with life on the sidelines this season.

Lealiifano’s form for the Brumbies saw him overtake Foley at first-choice no.10, and the Waratah only played two of the five Tests of their pre-World Cup campaign: the first and the last.

In between Lealiifano stepped up and impressed, helping Australia beat Argentina and New Zealand, and winning selection in the opening World Cup game too. Not as versatile as Matt Toomua, Foley wasn’t even on the bench for those games.

But suddenly he’s back in the side, as part of a plan Cheika said has been in the pipes for a while, but which was also solidified when it became clear to coaches via training data that Lealiifano needed a break after a massive season-to-date.

So step back up Foley; a man who knows plenty about performing under the pressure of a World Cup stage.

"I have been preparing like I am going to play every week up and until now. And I was just excited to be asked upon this week,” Foley said, adding he didn’t know about Cheika’s plan.

"There wasn't a game that was highlighted or I knew about, it was putting myself in the right frame of mind each and every week. That is what we are trying to build with this whole squad, that everyone is going to prepare like they are going to play.”

Foley, naturally, always wants to be playing but all that time on the sideline has had silver linings, he said.

Where once he didn’t have someone breathing down his neck to take his gold no.10 shirt, the competition with Lealiifano made him work on his game much more intensely. 

And when he lost the selection battle and began to watch Tests in a suit, Foley also found himself with more free time to do all that work.

“Definitely, when there's competition you have to review your own game, do a lot of self-analysis,” Foley said. 

"You do a lot of time with the coaches. The silver lining of not playing is that you get the extra sessions to work on your game. 

"You are a bit fresher on the Mondays, you get the extra sessions on game days where you can go and work tirelessly on your game, different aspects of it.

"I was trying to identify a different skill each week that I could work on so I am improving as a player, making my game more holistic every week. That has been the silver lining. It has been disappointing but now I get my chance it's making the most of the opportunity." 

Cheika has no doubts Foley will step back up and do the job for him against Wales.

“I obviously believe in him a lot, I’ve got a lot of history with him, and I think that he’s trying to fight against the challenge that Christian’s brought to him, and Matty Toomua as well,” Cheika said.

“That’s great for the team that he realises ‘okay I’ve got to lift my standard, this guy’s playing good footy and I’m getting my chance here’. 

“At the World Cup you’re not given anything, you’ve got to take everything. Here’s an opportunity, go and take it. I’m sure he’s in that mindset as well.”

Given the long history of tight matches against Wales over the last decade - and Foley’s role in the winning of most games - the new no.10’s goal kicking will be vital.

At the 2015 Rugby World Cup Foley kicked 28 from 35, including all of Australia’s points - five goals - in their 15-6 win over Wales. Reprising his “Iceman” role, he also famously kicked Australia to a last-gasp victory in their quarter-final win a week later over Scotland.

"I don’t think you can really draw on it,” Foley said of his 2015 kicking experience. 

"We all know how important goal kicking (is in) World Cups, pretty much every World Cup ever played has been decided by either a kick or a drop goal or a penalty goal or a conversion. 

"So, we know they are important but you've got to treat each kick the same, take it with the same process, get out there and make sure you stick to your routine and strike the ball well.

"That’s your role on the team. I enjoy goal kicking, I always have. It's the role you get to play for the team so when you are asked upon you deliver in those big moments.” 

Practised drop-kicks too?

"My old man has told me about field goals for probably 20 years, so I try and hit a few throughout the week definitely,” Foley said.

An off night with the boot against Samoa was partly due to the kickers having practised with World Cup-issue balls during their Noumea camp, and then switching back for the game.

"At least we have had a lot more time now with the World Cup balls,” Foley said.

"I think they do fly a bit differently. They probably float a bit different than we expect or usually in the past. But in saying that, you've got to trust your kick.

"You don't want to alter for the ball or be changing because each ball could be different. You just want to try and kick the same.”