Creating space for Folau

Matt Giteau and a straight-running inside centre could be just what Israel Folau needs to make him the hottest fullback in the world, writes MARK CASHMAN.

World Cup-winning Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer has delighted in the heroics of Folau since he came to rugby in 2013, but being the perfectionist he is, believes he can do much, much better.

Dwyer’s been amazed at the things ‘Izzy’ has been able to do in rugby since he code-hopped from Aussie rules and rugby league, and sees him among the elite fullbacks of the game, like Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny and the All Blacks’ Ben Smith. But there is a significant ‘however’ in this conversation.

‘Izzy’s a massive natural talent but in my mind he’s yet to get anywhere near where he can be,’ Dwyer says.

Statistically Folau may have led a number of categories like linebreaks through the Super Rugby season for the Waratahs, but those kinds of things can be misleading and Folau would agree that he hasn’t been in any sort of tippy-top form.

‘I don’t like to sound like I’m coming down on him, but he is being hamstrung by his understanding of his role and probably more critically by the way players are playing inside him,’ Dwyer continues, sounding almost apologetic about telling it like it is.

‘If Izzy is going to get the space he needs, the scrumhalf, flyhalf and inside centre all need to be working on one thing – to open up the space for the guys outside them. Like a lot of former rugby league players, he tries to hold people up in defence and then beat them on the outside, which is fine, but he’s got to learn more about taking people on the inside. He’s being presented with a lot of one-on-three situations and even for a man of his abilities, those odds don’t always finish in his favour.

‘It’s one of the simple pillars of the way the game should be played in my mind – you’ve got to make space for your teammates to run into. Izzy would certainly benefit from an inside centre who ran straight and opened up options for him in those channels he works so well in.’

Dwyer adds that Folau would flourish if he got the opportunity to play in a backline that was masterminded by Toulon’s Matt Giteau – an obvious contender for the Wallabies No 10 jersey as early as the Rugby Championship now the selection protocols for offshore players have been relaxed in Australia.

‘In the European Champions Cup final between Toulon and Clermont, the work Giteau did was special, very special,’ Dwyer enthuses. ‘I know [former All Blacks lock] Ali Williams got the Man of the Match award but in my book Gits ran that game so well from the No 10 channel. He just understands what you need to do at flyhalf – subtle things like not standing too deep in attack and not going too early with ball in hand.

‘I see it time and again in Super Rugby where 10s or 12s have gone through the footwork and change of pace well before they even hit the advantage line. Defences these days are so well educated about what is coming at them that they just hold back a bit and drift once they know the threat in attack from that area is over. Gits knows the importance of working close to the line and Toulon benefited from that numerous times during their run over the past couple of seasons.’

Talk has been bubbling in Australia about whether to throw Folau into the No 13 jersey, but Dwyer says he would prefer to see him have more time at the back.

‘Look, there’s no doubt he would do well anywhere he plays in a team, but I would prefer him to concentrate on being the best he can at fullback. I think he will learn a hell of a lot from Stephen Larkham, who is coming into the Wallabies’ coaching group. Stephen understands the importance of time and space, and Izzy will be the benefactor of that.’

Dwyer believes Folau will come back from the World Cup as the best fullback in the world.

‘That’s something he can’t say now,’ Dwyer adds. ‘I’d have Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny ahead of him and then there’s Ben Smith from the All Blacks. Toss in the Springboks’ Willie le Roux and you can see there’s a bit of a queue, but the opportunity for growth is laid out.’

– This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine


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Simon Borchardt