Rapid rise and rise of Israel Folau spells danger for Ireland

The great Noel Kelly retired from rugby league in 1970 after what Americans would call a Hall of Fame career and, 43 years later, the suburb of Goodna in the Queensland city of Ipswich honoured their famous son by naming a street after him.

Israel Folau was just 22 and had been a professional player for only three years when the good folk of Goodna repeated the gesture for another of their brethren who had at the time just crossed codes from league to Aussie Rules.

Things have always happened quicker for Folau. He represented Queensland at U19 level at 16 and from there progressed to being the youngest player to ever represent both the Melbourne Storm and the Kangaroos.

In all, he has made six debuts in rugby’s two codes — Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos, Queensland, Kangaroos, New South Wales Waratahs and the Wallabies — and scored at least one try in all of them.

His bow for the Wallabies, against the Lions last summer, came on the back of just 14 games of union for Michael Cheika’s ‘Tahs and he marked it by scoring two tries and terrifying the tourists.

Mark Geyer, one of league’s foremost pundits, said Folau could be the face of the code for years and Daryl Gibson, assistant coach at the Waratahs, predicted he could match Sonny Bill Williams’ impact on his switch to union.

The question is whether he will follow in the Kiwi’s footsteps by switching back to league and his compatriot Stephen Moore highlighted his many abilities this week by joking he might want to try his hand at something more exotic.

“He says he wants to play hurling next,” said the hooker who was born in Ireland and lived here for five years. “We asked the liaison officer if he could bring a few down to training. We’ll have a whack around at some stage.”

Failing that it is impossible to know exactly what the future holds for the Queenslander of Tongan descent who forsook a second shot at a Rugby League World Cup title with the ‘Roos this month for a go at the union version in 2015.

“I’ve signed on for another two years and that’s all I’m thinking of at this stage,” he said in Dublin this week just days after claiming yet another try, this time against Italy on Saturday.

“It’s my first year in rugby and I’m enjoying the experience. I feel like this is kind of home now and I’m trying to build on what I’m doing here and finish the year strongly. I’ll worry about the next couple of years then.”

The alacrity with which he has jumped ship has led to accusations he is a financial mercenary. He has admitted money is a factor in his decisions but only so he can look after his extended family.

His reported salary with the Broncos was an estimated AUS$500,000 (€346,000), his remuneration package in the AFL three times that, but his current pay slip is believed to be much closer to what he was on at Brisbane. If that’s true then money is hardly his guiding motivation but, whatever the reasons for the current incarnation, union should be grateful for the presence of a man whose athletic and football skills are almost off the charts.

Nine tries in just a dozen caps and this despite the fact he is still learning the ins and outs of the new code, according to Australian coach Ewen McKenzie.

What the finished article will look like beggars belief. Installed at full-back by both Cheika and McKenzie, his 6’ 5” frame and kicking skills honed in the AFL are made all the more dangerous by his newness to union and the fact opponents like Ireland have never faced him before.

“Maybe in some ways it helps playing new teams, but they will watch their video footage on different players,” he reasoned ahead ofSaturday’s meeting in Dublin. “Everyone does their homework. I’m the same. I don’t know too much about the players, but I can certainly do my homework as well because there are other different players to try to contain. Because they’re all great players. I go into the game ready to play.”

Ireland beware.


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