Fo­lau rel­ish­ing ‘the fun part’ on global stage

Aus­tralia full-back tells Daniel Schofield why he fi­nally feels ready for Twick­en­ham chal­lenge

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport: Rugby World Cup 2015 -

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

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