‘Team Tonga’s’ New Recruit: Israel Folau Joins the Waratahs Revolution

Israel Folau signs with the Waratahs for the 2013 Super Rugby season

by Brendan Bradford –

From scoring Superman-like tries in State of Origin deciders to transforming his body shape and taking up AFL, Israel Folau has been breaking records, amazing crowds and doing the impossible ever since he burst onto the rugby league scene as a freakishly talented 17-year old five years ago. His conversion to rugby this week is a coup for the sport in Sydney and the NSW Waratahs will surely benefit from his power, professionalism and ability to find the try-line.

In the opening round of the NRL in 2007, Folau became the youngest player to play for the Melbourne Storm, marking the occasion with a match-winning try against the Wests Tigers. He was the only Storm player to appear in every match that year and by the end of the season was equal top try-scorer in the NRL with 21, voted Dally M ‘Rookie of the Year’ and at 18-years of age had become the youngest player ever to represent Australia.

His meteoric rise continued in 2008 with a two try, man-of-the-match performance in the deciding State of Origin match in Sydney before winning the Dally M ‘Centre of the Year’.

By the time he left league for AFL, Folau had tallied 73 tries in 90 NRL games; an impressive strike-rate that supersedes other rugby league converts Lote Tuqiri, Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers and Timana Tahu.

A well-respected, humble and passionate man, the Waratahs won’t just benefit from Folau’s on-field talents. After five years in the public spotlight in two codes and three cities, Folau’s clean-cut image remains intact even as a succession of teammates and fellow footballers get caught up in various off-field misdemeanours.

Folau scores a freakish try for Queensland in the 2008 State of Origin decider. His prowess in the air was evident long before he played AFL.

Deeply religious, Folau’s level-headedness stems from his faith and a strong connection to his Tongan heritage. He returns to Tonga at the end of every football season to see family and friends but admits that when he joined Greater Western Sydney Giants, not many people on the small Pacific island knew anything about AFL.

Announcement this week of Folau’s signing to his third code in four years unleashed a torrent of comment on social media and sports pages with many unfairly labeling him a “mercenary”. Although he admits league was his first option, the big pay-cut he took to join the Waratahs plainly contradicts the image of a purely money-hungry code-hopper.

“It was never about the money, obviously – otherwise I would have stayed in AFL for the next two years and got paid those big dollars that I was contracted for.” Folau said this week.

”But I decided to walk away from the AFL deal, which was massive, and there was nothing secure in the future, so for me it wasn’t about that.”

Even Dave Matthews, chief executive of the Greater Western Sydney Giants, the party most likely to feel aggrieved at Folau’s departure from AFL, defends him against the mercenary charge.

“You won’t find anyone at the Giants or anyone in the AFL questioning his integrity.” Matthews told AFL.com.au.

“I think it is disappointing that he’s had his integrity questioned. He’s an outstanding person and we’ve always found him to be very honest and very open. What he did was a very honourable thing to ask to be released.”

It was a leaner version of Folau that took the field for GWS.

If the response from pundits and fans was mixed, the outpouring by teammates and players on Twitter was anything but.

Former Melbourne Storm teammate Billy Slater tweeted “Good luck with your new challenge mate. Too many ppl trying to live your life for you.” while former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones predicted Folau would be playing in the green and gold soon enough.

“Any guy that can play league at the top level he’s played is going to be successful and with the amount of ability he’s got he’s going to be an outstanding success.” Jones said this week.

“He’ll be a Wallaby within 12 months, if not less. He’s top range.”

Waratahs prop, Sekope Kepu was among the first to offer his congratulations and reveled in Folau’s addition to what he labelled “TahsTeamTonga” which already consists of himself, Wycliff Palu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and brothers Sitaleki and Lopeti Timani.

Such public support from players and coaches past and present is evidence of how highly regarded Folau is and the fact he replied to his many well-wishers on Twitter shows why he commands such respect.

After a lacklustre 2012 season in which match attendances started to suffer, Folau will be a drawcard for Sydney sport fans in general, with 30,000 already estimated for the Tahs’ first home game against the Melbourne Rebels in Round Three on March 2.

Of course there’s a lot of work to do in between now and then and many have speculated whether he can transfer his league talent to a code he hasn’t played since high-school. Other questions, including which Shute Shield club he will be affiliated with and what position he’ll play remain unanswered for now, but if there’s anyone who can make the transition to union and become the first person to play all three codes at elite level in Australia, it’s Israel Folau. After all, he’s been doing the impossible for years.