By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – For very different reasons, Israel Folau’s arrival in Australian rugby union six years ago was as explosive as his departure and, in sporting terms at least, the free-scoring fullback will be sorely missed.
The nation’s most potent attacking weapon since he scored with his third touch of the ball on his international debut in the first British and Irish Lions test in 2013, Folau had his contract torn up by Rugby Australia on Friday.
With the physique of a loose forward and the pace of a winger, Folau is without peer in the game under the high ball and made yards for his team pretty much every time he got into his loping stride.
“Freak” is the word most commonly used to describe his physical abilities, and last month he reached into the skies above Eden Park to gather in a crosskick and claim his 60th try for the New South Wales Waratahs — a Super Rugby record.
In six completed seasons in the game, Folau won the John Eales Medal as Australia’s best player an unprecedented three times and represented the Wallabies 73 times, scoring 37 tries.
A constant over his time in rugby union, though, was the Pentecostal Christian faith he converted to in his twenties, a fundamentalist creed his determination to espouse ultimately cost him his career in the game.
Always softly spoken and humble in front of the media, Folau was raised by Mormon parents of Tongan origin in south-west Sydney before moving north to Brisbane with them in his mid-teens.
Attending the same high school as Australia rugby league captain Cameron Smith, Folau was soon representing his country at age-group level in the 13-man code and catching the eye of scouts for pro teams.
He was just 17 when he made his debut in the National Rugby League and notched 21 tries in his debut season with Melbourne Storm, going on to score 73 in 91 matches over four seasons for Melbourne and the Brisbane Broncos.
Folau’s representative stats were equally impressive with six tries in eight tests for the Kangaroos and seven in eight games for Queensland in the State of Origin series.
In 2010, he made an unlikely code switch to Australian Rules, signing a three-year A$1.4 million ($1.28 million) deal to spearhead the indigenous code’s move into rugby league’s heartland with the Greater Western Sydney franchise.
For the first time in his young sporting career, though, Folau was not immediately successful and he ditched the final year of his contract to try a third code as a high-profile recruit for the New South Wales Waratahs.
Although initially looking a little uncomfortable in the 15-man game, he almost inevitably scored a try on his Super Rugby debut against the Queensland Reds.
He scored eight tries in 14 matches in his debut season for New South Wales and Australia coach Robbie Deans gave him his international debut against the Lions.
Unfazed by the occasion, Folau scored in the 14th minute and produced another spectacular effort to step past Jonny Sexton and power through the tackle of Leigh Halfpenny.
Australia lost the series and had a disappointing Rugby Championship but by the end of the year Folau had scored 10 tries in 15 test matches – equalling the record single season tally for the Wallabies.
Although he never again reached such scoring heights and, hampered by injury, failed to get on the board as Australia reached the final of the 2015 World Cup, the Wallabies will be a weaker team without him at this year edition in Japan.
(Editing by Ian Ransom)