Why you should care
Like the crunching hits and athletic aerials of the NFL? Check out one of the top athletes in a sport that’s 10 times fiercer.
Israel Folau was just a teenager — 16 or 17 years old — when rugby reporter Iain Payten first laid eyes on him. Folau’s raw athleticism was on display on the rugby pitch that day, and nearly a decade later Payten still remembers how the team’s recruitment manager described Izzy — as he is known affectionately in Australia — as they both watched from the sidelines: “Israel hasn’t set the world on fire yet, but he’s holding a lit match.”
After his sizzling 2013 debut season in Australia’s Rugby Union league and for the Wallabies, Australia’s national team, consider the match lit.
It’s been a stupendously circuitous route for Folau, as he rises to the highest levels of the game, but the 25-year-old has now established himself as one of rugby’s most exciting players at both a national and international level — breathing new life into the sport back home, where the national team has spent several years in the doldrums (by Aussie standards, anyway).
For Folau, it’s also a chance for redemption, after facing plenty of scorn for his 2011 decision to temporarily leave rugby and take a $4 million payout (a huge sum in the Aussie pro leagues) to try a new game — Australian Rules Football — with only marginal success.
Folau and his uniquely graceful free-flowing style, however, have renewed Aussie interest in the game and the team.
And with the 2015 World Cup — international rugby’s top prize — on the horizon, Izzy-mania is only bound to build.
Recently, rugby Down Under has seen some ”lean times in terms of popular support,” says Payten, who covers Rugby Union for the Telegraph in Sydney. Australian fans love a winner and expectations are sky-high for the Wallabies, particularly against chief rivals South Africa and New Zealand — the fearsome All-Blacks.
“Ten years ago, 15 years ago we were the world champions and we were beating New Zealand quite often,” he says. Since then, however, the All-Blacks have dominated the rivalry and took home the most recent World Cup, in 2011.
”A lot of people know him already and love to watch him play,” Payten says of the speedy fullback, who scores a lot of ”tries” — rugby’s equivalent of touchdowns — bobbing and weaving and barreling through defenders — which Folau pulls off with the grace of a ballroom dancer and the physicality of a bullet train.Folau and his uniquely graceful free-flowing style, however, have renewed Aussie interest in the game and the team.
”When he’s got the ball in his hands, he’s got so much speed and so much strength that on a good day he can look like a man among boys,” Sydney Morning Herald sportswriter and former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons says of Folau.
Izzy’s signature move: Using his astonishing vertical leap to out-jump opponents and catch the ball after it’s been punted — when, unlike in American football, either team can win the possession. It’s basically a free-for-all, but Folau’s hops give him a (literal) leg up on his competitors.
Yet for all his athletic gifts and his burgeoning fame, the Sydney native remains incredibly humble, Australian rugby watchers say. Soft-spoken, even. A ripped, tattooed, 6-foot 4-inch, 227-pound gentle giant.
Australia’s star rugby players, like American professional athletes, often have “off-field issues,” FitzSimons says. “Guys who are terrific on the field but drink too much and chase women too much, or whatever.” Folau, he says, ”is just the opposite, a quietly spoken Christian lad.”
Indeed, his Instagram feed reveals not only locker rooms shots with muscle-bound teammates but plenty of family pics with brothers, nieces and nephews, all part of his close-knit family of Tongan descent. Folau’s profile mentions that he’s a “proud Christian” and includes a Bible verse — Proverbs 3:5-6.
Folau went pro young — he was only 17 when he made his debut for the Melbourne Storm of the Rugby League.
In American athletics — where the Tim Tebows thank God after the winning touchdown or ink their shoes or eye black with Bible excerpts — that wouldn’t be strange. But overt shows of religiosity are not at all common in Australia.
Folau’s been the sore thumb before, though.
One of six siblings, Folau grew up in Minto, which Payten describes as “a pretty rough area of Sydney.” And though athletes of Pacific Islander heritage now make up a significant chunk of rugby players, Folau came of age at a time when rugby was still shifting out of its traditional private-school, WASP-y background.
Folau went pro young — he was only 17 when he made his debut for the Melbourne Storm of the Rugby League, one of Australia’s four pro contacts sports leagues or “codes,” as they call them. In addition to Rugby League or “league,” they include Rugby Union, often just called “rugby,” Australian Rules Football (AFL) and soccer. The basics are the same in Rugby League and Rugby Union: a bruising, physical game where the ball — an oblong, larger version of an American football — can be run forward but only be passed sideways or backwards. Only the player with the ball can be tackled or interfered with in any way. Like in football, much of the action happens at the line of scrimmage — in rugby, the “scrum” — where each team’s biggest, meatiest players go head-to-head to contest the ball. Unlike football, the same players play offense AND defense. And they don’t wear pads or helments. In other words, these are some tough dudes.
Aussie Rules Football, also called footy, is a sort of distant cousin to both rugby and soccer but it’s own distinct — and to this American, utterly confusing — game.
Folau is the only Australian athlete in history to play at the elite level in three codes — going from Rugby League, where he was considered an up-and-coming star, to a high-paid but short-lived stint in Aussie Rules, to Rugby Union, joining the New South Wales Waratahs in 2013.
Any doubts about Folau after his largely forgettable performance in the AFL quickly disappeared once he got back on a rugby pitch, and immediately regained his scoring touch. In Super Rugby — a sort of playoffs for the top domestic teams in Australia — Folau had 100-meter running games in nearly every one of the 14 matches for the Waratahs, sort of like a football running back surpassing 100 yards … every game. And he matched the record for most tries in a debut season for both the Waratahs and the Wallabies.
Folau had European rugby fans swooning over his performance in the fall of 2013 during the Wallabies tour through the British Isles and Rome, and you can bet he’s caught the attention of more than a few folks over in Auckland, as well. New Zealand is still the Goliath of international rugby, but Australia may have found its David.
This piece was originally published on Feb. 4, 2014, and was updated as of Dec. 20, 2014.