Robbie Deans decision to omit Quade Cooper from his initial squad to face the British and Irish Lions came as surprise to many, but it was no surprise to see Israel Folau amongst the 25-man group. The Waratahs full-back has been a revelation since switching from the AFL (Aussie Rules Football) and he now looks set to play a major role in the test series in June.
It has been a meteoric rise for the full-back, who was relatively unknown to the Rugby Union world just a couple of months ago. Folau first made his name in Rugby League with the Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos. After making his league debut aged just 17, he went onto become the youngest player ever to represent Australia at 18 years of age.
Despite enjoying four successful seasons in the NRL, which included a Grand Final win and two State of Origin titles, Folau made a big money switch to the AFL. But his time in Aussie Rules Football was brief and unspectacular, he made just 13 appearances and struggled to adapt despite his enormous talent. In December 2012 the Waratahs announced that Folau would be joining them for the 2013 season.
Since switching to Rugby Union Folau has been in sensational form, scoring seven tries in 13 appearances as well as leading the league in runs and metres made. When you see Folau play it is hard to believe that he is in his first season of professional Rugby Union, that’s how good he has been this season.
His size, strength and speed make him one of the most gifted athletes of his generation, and these physical attributes have played a huge part in his successful transition. Then there is his skills set which is again of the highest quality, his offloading and ability to put other players into space has been a key part of the Waratahs game. His play under the high ball is solid and his defensive work is also very good, if there is one area of weakness it is Folau’s positional play.
It is the positional aspect of the game that the Lions will look to expose should Folau be selected for the first test on June 22nd. The tactical kicking of Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell will need to be spot on, any loose kicks will be returned with interest and we have seen countless times how deadly Folau is when counter-attacking. He can run round you or run through you.
People will also point to his lack of big match experience as another weakness that can be exploited. But it is important to remember that Folau has played international Rugby League, and also competed in State of Origin which is probably the most intense and physical series in either code. He will have no issues with the occasion.
Australia have one the most talented backlines in world rugby, with the likes of Digby Ioane, James O’Connor, Will Genia and Adam Ashley-Cooper. But Folau’s talent is so immense that he could be the standout player for the Robbie Deans side. The prospect of Folau lining up against the Lions is a very scary one.