It’s a wonder Izzy isn’t dizzy, considering all the shuffling around he’s done from sport to sport and the highs he has hit in rival rugby codes on either side of his failed adventure in Australia’s unique football game.
Israel Folau’s path to a once-in-a-dozen years series against the British and Irish Lions has been … perhaps best described simply as different.
Better known as Izzy, Folau played rugby league for Australia and was a star for Queensland in the State-of-Origin series against New South Wales, one of the fiercest and most rugged annual rivalries in any sport.
His ascent in rugby league was so rapid that it seemed to him to be almost too easy, so he sought another challenge. With his size and ability to leap high for catches in crowded areas, he figured a stint as a marquee signing for a new Western Sydney club in the nationwide Aussie rules competition couldn’t do him any harm.
That left-field move backfired. He never properly picked up the nuances of the predominantly kicking-oriented game, and so he searched elsewhere for another challenge and found the Super Rugby clubs only too happy to welcome him to a third professional sport.
He has been an almost instant hit with the Waratahs, where his powerful running game, his strength and his rugby league-style tackling have converted even the most rusted-on rugby union aficionados who doubted he’d adapt to the 15-a-side game.
At 24, and without any guarantee that he’ll play rugby union beyond 2013, Folau was picked by coach Robbie Deans in his initial 25-man Wallabies squad for the Lions series with potential to cover full-back, wing or center.
“I haven’t seen much of the previous series … and, personally, I don’t know too many of their players,” Folau said at the time, reflecting on his knowledge of the Lions.
“I guess I’m still new to knowing all the faces of the game but that might be a thing that could work in my favor.”
He didn’t even need to watch the tape to know the impact of Jason Robinson, who celebrated his run-on Test debut with a try in the first three minutes for the British and Irish Lions to start the 2001 series. Robinson’s speed and step earned him representative honors for Britain in rugby league, and also made him a star in the more global rugby union.
“You’ve probably seen when Jason Robinson made the transition from league, he did a great job,” Folau noted in a TV interview when asked about his rapid elevation to the national squad.
After a distinguished rugby league career, Robinson earned 51 caps for England in rugby union before retiring after the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
Folau’s potential to play full-back, center or wing could make him even more dangerous to an opposition. But he’s not getting ahead of himself.
“I’m very confident in my own ability but I’m not guaranteed to get a starting spot,” he said.
“I’m just happy to be named in the 25-man squad.”
Folau made his National Rugby League debut at 17 and his international rugby league debut at 18, so he’s hardly likely to be overawed by the occasion after making the transition to union.
After 300 rugby league games for Wigan, Robinson said he played his first game of rugby union in November 2000, played three Tests as a substitute for England in February and then earned his first run-on test cap for the Lions in Brisbane in June 2001. It took seconds for him to make his impact on the wing, sprinting down the left touchline, then wrong-footing experienced Australian full-back Chris Latham to open the scoring in the series.
“You know something? At the time, I didn’t know who Chris Latham was,” Robinson told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph earlier in the week.
“Later I found out he was one of the best full-backs to ever play the game, and is a very intelligent player.
“My strength, being a bit of a midget, was my feet and I managed to just get on the outside of him. It was just on the day, everything went well for us. But after that, it didn’t.”
Robinson also scored an important try in the third test, but the Australians countered to produce a series-clinching win in Sydney.
He thinks Folau can make an impact on the series, if given the chance. There were criticis of Folau’s inclusion in selection calculations, including Brumbies Super Rugby coach Jake White – South Africa’s Word Cup winning coach – who thought it would devalue the Wallabies jersey to pick him before he’d committed to a longer rugby union contract.
But Robinson is clearly a fan.
“It’s amazing. I was able to play two different sports in league and union. You look at Israel, he’s got three to his name,” Robinson said. “That in itself suggests he’s something special.”
“Australia have got some exceptional outside backs already, let’s be honest, but he has so many different qualities, he’s an exceptional talent,” added Robinson.
“Every time a Lions tour comes up, there’s always one or two players who … pops up and seems to stand out. He is one of those players. He could cause the Lions problems.”