The teams that have benefited from his skills and abilities have been champions and giants of the respective worlds of rugby. The Maroons are still on an Origin record winning streak thanks to his residual presence, and his current club, the Waratahs, are looking like they might be Super Rugby champions.
He was born in Minto, a suburb of western Sydney, in 1989 to Tongan parents, and lived a relatively normal life until high school in Brisbane when his Rugby League career started to flourish. He represented Australian Schoolboys before the scout for the Melbourne Storm spotted him, and he subsequently made his NRL debut at the age of 17. Storm coach Craig Bellamy didn’t expect to play the young winger so early, but due to injury, he was called into the starting team for the opening round of 2007 and made a massive impact from the outset.
After that his Rugby League career exploded and records began to fall at his feet. He went on to represent Australia and Queensland for four years, making the NRL All Stars team in 2010. After such a successful stint in League, he tried his hand (or boot) with the AFL’s fledgling GWS Giants, but after two years, he hadn’t grasped the game well and looked for a way back into rugby.
Instead of a League side – namely Parramatta, who helped broker his release from the AFL – earning his signature, the struggling NSW Waratahs picked him up for 2013 thanks to some financial wheelings and dealings. He made an immediate impact again and rose so rapidly that in his first year of Union, he made his Wallabies debut against the British and Irish Lions, scoring twice in a memorable maiden Test.
He had come to the game played in heaven and he was fast becoming a demigod. His array of skills are apparent on the field and his ability to beat opponents, execute offloads and find space to score isn’t matched by many. He is the choice weapon on attack for the Waratahs and Wallabies.
Israel Folau is a very precious commodity to his current 15-a-side teams and is responsible for immeasurable windfalls. He can break open games and win them, as well as draw in the crowds through the turnstiles. If Union sold jerseys with his name on them, I am sure that they would be perpetually sold out. Young spectators hang over the advertising boards to have their picture taken with him and have him sign a shirt, ball or cap. He is a valuable asset that needs to be protected and enticed to remain in Australia and Union.
There has been recent talk about Folau returning to the NRL, but nothing has come to fruition. There is, however, the very real prospect that cashed-up French giant Toulon has been in talks with him to join the club after the 2015 World Cup. Any player would be a fool not to look at what Toulon has to offer, but what can Australia offer him to stay in his homeland? The ARU and the Waratahs do not have the cash to match the rich backers of Europe, so they will have to rely on pride and the chance of representing Australia in Sevens Rugby at the 2016 Olympics.
It is difficult to put a price on this man. I’m sure that the brilliant fullback’s playing salary will be known if and when he joins Toulon, but what about the residual and fringe benefits? His presence cannot be measured in mere dollars or Euros, as he has immense pulling power. This power of attraction might translate well in Europe, but there is the worry that no one will care. This is a minor worry, however, as the two-time Heineken Cup champions will market Folau to his fullest extent to attract the crowds and win some games.
The big names of any sport are a marketer’s dream. They can sell anything from cars to perfume to underwear, and this exposure can reap financial benefits for the player as well as his club. A price cannot really be put on this type of asset. With Folau’s charms, he could sell red sand to Alice Springs.
So how much is Folau really worth to Australian Rugby? He has crafted a strike-rate of 11 tries in 16 tests, which is remarkable in this day and age. He has beaten enough defenders to create myriad chances for his teammates, pegging him as a major threat on attack as a provider, not just as a finisher. His tackling is solid at the back and he has ample speed to execute good cover defence. Can you put a price on his skill and contribution to the team? Never mind his ability at Test level, the Waratahs wouldn’t be where they are without his influence to lift the team. No wonder other teams are circling him with bulging money bags.
The ARU are trying to convince him to stay by holding up the Olympics carrot. Folau will have to stay on an extra year if he wants to represent Australia at the Olympics, which will put a major dent in Toulon’s bid for him. I couldn’t hazard a guess about whether he wants to represent Australia at the Olympics, but that honour may not be enough.
Like a chosen few before him, Folau has the opportunity to live in any country and play for any club of his choosing, if they were just to open their cheque books. He is still young and has at least another five years in him – and another World Cup – before he begins to submit to younger talent. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he takes up a big contract with a cash-heavy club. Folau is arguably part of the mercenary crowd who play-for-pay. Sonny Bill Williams has created enough controversy with his actions of jumping codes and clubs, and it looks like Folau might take the same path. The path of following the money.
I have written before that loyalty to the crest or badge is a rare thing, so I’m not surprised that some of the young guys will honour cash over national pride. Australia cannot afford to keep Folau if they were to battle with bank accounts, so what can they offer to keep him in the country? I am not sure if Australia’s enticements are big enough to stop him from boarding a plane. The Olympics is a big chance to win something rare and gold, but I don’t know if Folau will be interested in Olympic glory. An Olympics campaign doesn’t pay as well as Toulon and the Sevens Rugby tournament is for only three days. The current offer on the table is lucrative and for two years.
How much is Israel Folau worth? More than I can guess – and the big clubs are prepared to pay any amount to have him on their roster. On the surface, there isn’t much the ARU can do to keep him on our shores.
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