MARK KEOHANE reports Israel Folau is being tipped to make the biggest yet cross-code impact in rugby union, bigger even than Sonny Bill Williams.
Yet unlike Williams, money is not the driving force, and the Tongan/Australian has taken a 50% salary cut to play rugby union.
Folau switched to the AFL 18 months ago and played 13 matches, earning more than a R2 million ($A230 000) a match. He quit AFL club, the Greater Western Sydney Giants, because of a lack of passion for the code, saying he would have been cheating himself, the club and the fans had he continued to play the code just because of the financial rewards.
Folau, a superstar in rugby league by the age of 21, switched league for AFL 18 months ago and now wants to show his worth in rugby union and is confident of making the Wallabies in his first year.
Rugby union will be the 23-year-old’s third code in four years and a successful transition may see him do a Williams and play out his career between league and union.
Folau’s primary preference has always been rugby league, in which he was a star performance for the Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos (here are some of Folau’s best tries in league; the footage showcases his skills in the air).
Folau’s only season in AFL made him the 36th highest earning sports personality in Australia in 2012. Put into context, only one Australian Rugby Union player makes the top 50 in former Wallabies flanker George Smith, who plays in Japan.
Folau’s AFL stint by the numbers:
13 – The number of games Folau played for the Giants. ‘To be honest I didn’t think I’d play that many,’ Folau said
A$230 769 (R2.1 million) – The amount Folau was paid per match by the Giants (based on pro-rata earnings over two seasons)
A$1.5 million: (R14 million) – His reported annual salary based on a A$6 million (R54 million) figure over four years
84 – The number of possessions he gathered – including 49 contested, 35 uncontested – and 22 marks. He also managed 18 tackles
6.2 – The number of disposals per game – the fewest of any player in the league who played more than 12 games
A$35 714 (R334 000) – His estimated fee for each of those 84 possessions
Folau played Rugby league for the Melbourne Storm in the NRL from 2007 to 2008 where, as a 17 year-old he broke the record for most tries in a debut year. He then played with the Brisbane Broncos from 2009 to 2010. He also represented the Australian rugby league team and Queensland in State of Origin matches, becoming the youngest player to play for both teams.
Folau had his first-ever rugby union training session a month ago with the Waratahs and he will be used on the wing. He was recognised in rugby league as the best in the air when it came to manufacturing tries out of the high cross-kick to the wing, which is what initially attracted AFL coaches to want to sign him.