Israel gets his AFL passport, but will he be a natural?
So rugby league star Israel Folau has been lured to play a code he’s never played for a team that doesn’t exist yet who’ll play out of a stadium that hasn’t been built yet. Cue all the so-called experts, most of whom follow either rugby league or AFL, but not both codes, to argue why Folau’s switch to team Greater Western Sydney will or won’t work.
Face it, guys. Neither you nor I can say whether Folau’s exceptional leaping skills will work in a pack mark situation. Israel tips the scales at 103 kilos, the same as Barry Hall and Jonathan Brown, but we’re kidding if we think we know whether he’ll cut it as a power forward.
As to whether Folau will be able to master that ungainly AFL skill known as handballing, well, not even Nostradamus would dare take a stab at that one. But there is one guy who’s got a fair idea of what lies ahead for Folau. His name’s Mike Pyke, and he’s the Sydney Swans ruckman who used to play rugby union for Canada.
He’s quite an athlete, as this runaway try against the All Blacks shows.
Pyke is unique among the AFL’s 720 active players. Brisbane Lions defender Daniel Merrett played rugby league at schoolboy level, but only Pyke has played one of the two rugby codes at the elite senior level.
When I first interviewed him in 2009, he told me the weirdest thing about switching to the AFL was singing the team song after a win. “Really, really strange,” he said. “I haven’t done that in any other sport I’ve played. I usually only sing after a few beers.”
I called Pyke again today, and asked him to name six things that Israel Folau will find tricky about making the transition to AFL. Here’s his list:
Handballs: I’m probably still working on them to be honest. It’s definitely an acquired skill. They key is a lot of repetition. I was a bit baffled how slowly I was coming along at first, especially when you see the Irish guys who adapt quickly having done something similar in Gaelic Football.
It takes a while to work out exactly where you’re hitting the ball. Israel will need to develop a callous or bone spur on his index finger.
Fitness: There is nowhere to hide in the AFL. When I first arrived from Canadian rugby, I was reasonably fit and ran a decent 3km time. I had six months before my first season and I said to the club’s fitness staff, “do what you want with me”.
Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would run so much. I must have run the equivalent of a lap of Australia. But I needed the training because you run so much more in the AFL. You’re on the field for 120 minutes, which is 50 per cent longer than a normal rugby game and you probably run 100 per cent more.
Marking: In the rugby codes, you are generally running with the flight of the ball, not against it. It’s very different running at the ball with your hands out in front of you, as we do in AFL.
Also in rugby generally you’re marking on your chest whereas in AFL you’re catching it in your hands all the time. Israel is obviously strong in this facet of the game, so given time, I’m sure it can be one of his strengths.
Being hit from different angles: AFL is a game of 360 degrees, and sometimes you think you have space but you don’t have any space at all. If he has good teammates and good communications on field, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Kicking: If I was Israel, I would be practising kicking for at least an hour a day for six or seven days a week. That doesn’t mean he should be trying to kick it 50 yards all the time. He should just be walking through the house kicking the ball to himself, getting a feel for the ball as much as possible.
The shorter kicks can be the most difficult in AFL, especially when running at speed.
The culture: For me personally, running in tank tops and running tights was a huge shock. No man would do that in Canada, it just wouldn’t happen. I don’t know if they do that in rugby league, but if they don’t, it’s something he’ll have to get used to.
Thanks Mike. As we can all see, Izzy is going to busy.
But regardless of whether or not Folau measures up as a player, much of the success of his recruitment will be measured off field. Folau’s job brief actually includes the words “development and promotion”, meaning he can expect to visit more schools than the Twisties delivery guy.
Will he cut through in rugby league land? Well, he was born in Minto in Sydney’s west, just over the back fence from Campbelltown Stadium, so that’s a good start.
He’s also of Tongan descent, which should help the large Pacific Islander community across greater Western Sydney tune their collective antennae to AFL – a sport they otherwise ignore.
Team GWS bosses are confident their new man will be worth every one of the million or so dollars he’ll earn for each of the next four years.
“Israel has strong links to this community and can also be a beacon for his community, who may not have considered our game as their first-choice sport, as GWS builds over the next 18 months to become part of the AFL,” Team GWS VEO Dale Holmes said.
The inference is clear. Israel Folau’s task is not to scale the AFL’s highest peaks. He just has to conquer Rooty Hill.
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