Folau relishing ‘the fun part’ on global stage
Australia full-back tells Daniel Schofield why he finally feels ready for Twickenham challenge
This is the single biggest sporting weekend in the Australian sporting calendar. A crowd of around 100,000 is expected to pack the MCG for the Australian rules Grand Final between Hawthorn Hawks and West Coast Eagles before fierce rivals Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys do battle in the National Rugby League showpiece at Stadium Australia. Both events will grip the attention of the nation.
Israel Folau wanted more than parochial fame. He wanted the global platform that only a World Cup can offer, which is why after spells in league and Aussie rules the 26-year-old now has the stage his outrageous talent demands. After a low-key start against Fiji and Uruguay, Australia step out of the shadows today into the blinding light. With England a defeat away from elimination in the group stages, the eyes of the world will be focused on Twickenham and on the individual in the Australian No 15 shirt. It is not an opportunity Folau is prepared to let slip.
“I think for every player this is where they want to dominate,” he said. “This is as high as you go. They want to play the best they can and it is no different to myself. The guys are really excited about the game and we just can’t wait to get out there to play some footy. It’s been a good week and now’s the fun part on Saturday night.”
Four years ago, Folau was not having much fun at all. He was just over a year into his transition to Aussie rules from league where he had sent records and would-be tacklers tumbling. The alien world of the AFL was a different matter with 10 extra players on the field coming from all angles. One opposition player said of Folau: “He is a statue watching the birds.”
Explosiveness counted less than dexterity, which is why he shed 13kg (two stone). “I got down to 95kg [15 stone]. I was pretty light for my height,” Folau said. “I had to cut out a lot of carbs, a lot of bread and rice and all that sort of stuff which I like, but it was something you had to do to lose that weight. I was having a break four years ago, the season was done for us and I was just spending time with the family so it’s a bit of a change around four years later. I never thought I’d be in this situation.”
Folau readily admits that he only took a passing interest in the Wallabies’ performances at the 2011 World Cup. Now he is shouldering their hopes. It is a responsibility he has grown used to since scoring a record-breaking 20 tries for the Melbourne Storm in his rookie season as a 17-year-old. In union too, he instantly set a ludicrously high bar with two tries on his Australia debut against the Lions. Inevitably such performances created corresponding pressure, which he has gradually learnt to live with.
“At first, I think I was just trying to carry too many people’s expectations, where you don’t need to,” Folau said. “You’ve just got to worry about yourself, that’s all it comes down to. You’re the only person that goes out there and plays so that’s what I learnt over the years. Going through the experiences it didn’t work for me to try and carry that weight on or expectation of anyone else.”
There had been some scurrilous conjecture in a few northern hemisphere circles that Folau was not living up to the hype during last year’s autumn internationals. The full-back was still chewing up the yards and offloads, but effective kicking displays by Jonathan Sexton and George Ford curtailed his game-changing moments. Folau admits he found the experience “frustrating”, but as Stephen Larkham, the Australia attack coach, points out, that was largely a collective rather than individual failing as the Wallabies adapted from Ewen McKenzie’s to Michael Cheika’s system.
The temptation will be for Folau to set Twickenham ablaze the moment the ball comes his way, but like the apex predator that he is, the man with the 31-inch jump will be biding his time for the first loose kick, the first mismatch, the first chink of broken field.
“I have got to play with brains,” Folau said. “You obviously can’t run everything. You’ve just got to go with your gut feeling. It comes back to your instincts you know. What you feel is right at the time, the decision, whether it’s the run or kick. You can’t be indecisive.”
Outrageous talent: Israel Folau had spells in rugby league and Australian rules before switching to rugby union