My first decision when writing this article was whether to end that headline with an exclamation point or a question mark (you will note I opted for neither). For, make no mistake about it, the signing of NRL super star Israel Folau by the Melbourne Rebels and the ARU will have fans falling into two groups. Those who think its a ripper of a signing and those who think it is a dud call.
I want to look at all the arguments here, but let’s start with a bit of background. This might be more the purposes of our readers not from the east coast of Australia nor New Zealand who are asking “what the hell is a folau?”
Folau currently is playing centre for the Brisbane Broncos rugby league team in the NRL competition having previously played for the troubled Melbourne Storm. He’s done it all in the code -won premierships, played for QLD, played for Australia (the youngest person ever to do so at 18 years and 194 days) – and remarkably has just turned 21.
So I guess you could suggest it is somewhat understandable that Folau is looking for new challenges. It would seem the driving force for his switch to the Rebels is that he misses the anonymity of playing footy in Melbourne. He’s a quiet individual, hardly a media hound like previous converts Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri. He’s also very religious, from the Church of the Latter Day Saints, I believe.
I’ve included some of his highlights with the Broncos, ironically put together by someone celebrating his signing by the club.
The first thing you will pick up from this clip is his amazing aerial skills. He is quite genuinely a freak at collecting the high ball/cross field kick. It is a weapon the Storm and Broncos as well as the QLD and Australian league teams used to great effect with him.
You’ll also notice, whilst he doesn’t have Rodney Davies nor Lachie Turner pace, he moves pretty damn quick for someone of his size (apparently 195cm & 102kgs). He definitely knows the way to the try line and uses his size and decent body height to get across the line. He also is reasonably effective on his feet, with some handy stepping work. Not light-footed by any means, but he can put a step on, which for someone his size is a handy skill. Note Lomu.
He looks massive on the league field, but interestingly he’s about the same size as Rocky Elsom, and, more surprisingly, Brumbies outside centre Andrew Smith. But he’s a real athlete with the physique to make the girls swoon.
So where is he going to play? The thinking is that he will follow the highly successful Will Chambers route. Depending on when he gets game time in rugby, Izzy is likely to start on the bench, before getting game time at wing. If he shows any sort of proficiency on the wing then I would think that outside centre is his position.
Wing these days is a game based on the ability to counter attack and take advantage of out and out speed. These aren’t skills I see in Folau. However the physical game at outside centre? Yeah, I reckon it will suit him. Like anyone new to the position, not just leaguies, it will take some adjusting from a defensive perspective. It is a critical position requiring high awareness as you can sometimes have three or four attackers running into your channel waiting for you to make the wrong decision.
Some more left field suggestions have been that he should play the backrow. His size lends himself to that, as does his high involvement game in league. I guess it also comes as a throwback to Sailor who many people thought didn’t have a wingers game and should have been tried in the pack. The obvious issue there is that the intricacies of forward play – scrums, lineouts, rucks, etc – are sometimes difficult enough for a referee to interpret let alone a leaguie back!
So, ok, let’s start with the negatives.
Why are we spending money on another untried leaguie when Australian Rugby’s depth at the moment is unsurpassed? We have some many young quality players coming through the ranks, so why don’t we support them? I mean Blair Connor, who is one of my favourite players and I think has plenty of potential, has just jumped ship to play second division in France.
Look at the precedents. We signed Sailior, Tuqiri and Rogers and basically handed them a Wallaby jersey with their contract. We lost Scott Staniforth to the UK at the time, and probably missed out on the best football of his life.
And what did we get in return? Ok, sure we got HEAPS of press. But, to be fair, not all of it was positive. Conservatively I reckon a third of it was negative. You know, drinking sessions, phone pranks, drug abuse. And contract negotiations. Oh those bloody contract negotiations! Well that’s what happens when you sign a mercenary. Live by the sword, die by the sword and all that.
Trying to spin that a bit, let’s look at the money first. The reports in the paper today are suggesting we may be getting him for a bargain. Firstly the Rebels will be paying him the standard Super 14 (15) maximum state contract of $140,000. Then the ARU will be paying an additional $100,000 and apparently a couple of corporate are putting in another $230,000 each to bring the figure to $600,000 plus match payments. So the ARU is only paying $100,000? That seems like an absolute steal personally. The media publicity alone will be worth that.
From a playing perspective he’s going to have some fairly top level guidance around him. Firstly Rod McQueen who’s man management sets him apart from most coaches. And then there is Stirling Mortlock. Arguably the best Wallaby Outside Centre of the last few decades. What a man to mentor Folau’s apprenticeship. In all likelihood Morty’s lack of speed will see him playing 12 for the Rebels with Folau a fair bet to be his centre partner. It’s called on the job learning, but it helps being outside one of the best ever.
And how have the leaguies taken to the move? Well, on the back of the Melbourne Storm fiasco it’s just another wet fish to the face. Of course they have reacted reasonably. Mal Meninga won’t pick him for the State of Origin team anymore. And of course we hear the cries of “we don’t care. Some else just as good will come along in
his place”, which loses any sort of credence when they said the same thing about Lote and now he’s been mooted for return to the Australian league team.
Personally? I think it’s a rocking signing (when it happens of course). Love it. He’s a wonderful athlete who is a focussed competitor and he works hard on his game. He’s not the flashy headline seeker like Dell or Lote nor is he bitter and twisted like Rogers. Plus he’s already got a decent profile in Melbourne and a reasonable following. My fear though, is that it will be a short term option. A two-year fly by night thing before he goes off to his new challenge be it AFL, European rugby or, who knows, NFL? But in the end all the ARU would have lost is a couple of hunjie, and I am betting we’ll get more of that in return. Both on field and off.