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Folau takes baby steps towards a brave new world

Date

Caroline Wilson

Israel Folau's conversion has been Kevin Sheedy's biggest challenge.

Big ask: Israel Folau faces a tough challenge in his first AFL season.

Big ask: Israel Folau faces a tough challenge in his first AFL season. Photo: Wolter Peeters

THE Israel Folau cheer squad has allowed realism to overtake the jingoism that accompanied the early stages of his Australian Rules career, but the football bosses and coaches at Greater Western Sydney continue to shake their heads at his bravery.

No coach from Kevin Sheedy down at the Giants will predict that the young footballer will succeed - and Sheedy says converting Folau into an AFL player has been the biggest challenge of his coaching career. But all who watched the 22-year-old endure his 2011 baby steps insist he ploughed on through not only self-doubt but some dreadful abuse from the sidelines.

''I'd like to see someone whack him,'' said Sheedy of the prospect of Folau's first few home-and-away games, which should be marked by his debut against the Swans on March 24. ''I'd like to see his reaction because he's a big bloke and he's not always smiling.''

Israel Folau at training.

Israel Folau at training. Photo: Wolter Peeters

But Folau did flash a smile when questioned about the sledging he put up with from resentful rugby league fans and AFL cynics last season. ''You can hear it a lot better when there aren't many people at games,'' he said.

''I'm looking forward to the on-field stuff. I know it's going to come from the opposition and I quite enjoy it when an opponent gets in my ear. It sort of fires me up and sometimes I need that to get going.

''When I first came over from rugby league I knew I was going to cop it and there was a time there when I had a bit of doubt. I just thought: 'I don't know whether I can do this or not'.

''It was all building up inside me and I only spoke to my parents and they kept saying: 'Hang in there, it's going to take time.' But now I understand the game a bit better and I set myself little goals so I hope I cop a bit. I'm looking forward to it.''

Folau, who has shed eight kilograms over the past year and told The Age he did not want to lose any more, described his first AFL pre-season as tough. ''There has been a lot of running which I'm not used to,'' he said, ''and a lot of meetings as we get closer. A lot more meetings than in league. I've told the boys I'm not too good at meetings. I'm better out there having a kick.''

Folau's estimated $4 million, four-year deal with the AFL and GWS no longer sticks out as much following the high-profile signing of Tom Scully, but he remains one-out from the team geographically having bought a house for himself and his parents in Kellyville in Sydney's west while his fellow Giants all live in the relatively lavish gated community of Breakfast Point.

He has made a great new friend, however, in former Blue Setanta O'hAilpin and is no longer carrying alone the load as the face of the AFL's 18th club.

He agreed the upsides had been many compared with this time last year when an ankle injury had more than halved his pre-season. ''The club spoke to me about what was going to happen when I came to the club,'' said Folau. ''About the focus on me in the early part but sharing the load around has been good now that Tom Scully and all these other big names have come up.''

Back when Folau played with Melbourne Storm and shared training facilities with Carlton, O'hAilpin frequently caught his eye on the track. ''I had no idea then that he was Irish,'' said Folau, ''or that he had a Fijian background. ''But I used to like watching the way he went about his training and he's become a good friend.''

Standing deep in the GWS forward line with the strong-bodied O'hAilpin, the experienced Chad Cornes and teenage sensation Jeremy Cameron will remove further pressure from Folau, who was switched in May last season from the backline into attack by assistant coach Mark Williams. Many claim ownership of the decision, but insiders agree that list manager Stephen Silvagni first suggested it.

Folau has never returned for any significant period to defence and finished the 2011 North Eastern League competition with 31 goals. But it was not so much the scoring tally, he insisted, but a particular game in June in which he happened to kick five goals where his self-belief returned.

''That's the game when I thought: 'I think can do this','' recalled Folau. ''I started to understand my role. It wasn't only kicking goals but I set myself little things like putting pressure on and causing a turnover and I was really pleased with that.''

Sheedy said converting Folau from rugby league to AFL football had been a tough assignment. ''It's a mountain of a challenge,'' he said. ''He [Folau] is not a bad kick and I've watched his decision-making behind goals and that's where he just has to keep playing - to know when to move across and when to go in and to go out.''

Folau admitted he struggled at times with the four-time premiership coach in terms of his teaching style. ''With Choco [Mark Williams] he's probably more hands on and with Sheeds he uses his past to make comparisons and talk about players he's worked with to try and get his point across.

''A lot of guys he talks about I've never heard of. With me he mentions Michael Long or James Hird a bit and I've heard of them but I don't really know how they played.'' Sheedy responded later: ''It's up to him to find a tape and watch them to find out.'' (Last year when one of the AFL's most famous coaches, David Parkin, reported that Folau was unhappy and on the verge of giving the game away, Folau was heard asking GWS colleagues who Parkin was.)

Karmichael Hunt warned Folau early in his transition that the pace of the game and the highly skilled nature of the code would challenge him. Watching Folau train as he nears his AFL debut all football observers agree that the 22-year-old's endurance and his struggle to read the play will test him the most.

''That's exactly the hardest thing,'' agreed Folau, ''running to the right spot and knowing when to run.''

There is genuine doubt over whether GWS will win a game in its debut season or whether Folau will fire a shot. The Giants football bosses believe it will be two years before Folau's football destiny is clear.

But according to Sheedy: ''I've got to play him. He's got to learn so we've just got to keep playing him. He's going to make it or he isn't but I you have to ask the question: 'How brave is that kid?' ''

15 comments

  • I'm an AFL fan through and through, however I do enjoy NRL and have always liked watching Israel Falou. I hope he does succeed at AFL and would like to see him exceed everyones expectations. It's too easy to just sit back and make judgements, which is what happens far to often in this country. Lets not forget, this guy is a professional athlete and has represented Australia on several occasions, and the guy is only 22... Good luck Izzy, and if you get a chance if you could clean up Nick Maxwell and shut that bloke up that would be great !

    Commenter
    Eric Major
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    February 07, 2012, 8:41AM
    • could not have said it better myself. great post

      Commenter
      matty
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      February 07, 2012, 11:01AM
  • Sounds like Sheedy is completely out of touch. The kid says:

    "I've told the boys I'm not too good at meetings. I'm better out there having a kick."

    Yet Sheedy wants him to learn the game by watching tapes of old players he has never heard of. What a goose.

    Lucky he has Choco there actually teaching him how to play.

    Commenter
    Wal
    Location
    Bush
    Date and time
    February 07, 2012, 9:00AM
    • Izzy could do with a bit of John Kennedy's coaching philosophy

      "DON'T THINK, DO!"

      Commenter
      Old timer
      Location
      Trapped in office
      Date and time
      February 07, 2012, 10:23AM
  • This article is yet more proof that Choco Williams is the actual coach of GWS and that Sheeds is just an increasingly irrelevant mouthpiece. Why don't the AFL stop treating people like fools and just own up to this? They really think the people of Sydney's west are so stupid as to just blindly accept whatever they serve up and will all 'see the light' and convert to AFL. This is going to be a massive failure and a huge mistake that will do major damage to the already struggling AFL brand in this city...

    Commenter
    Jono
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 07, 2012, 9:01AM
    • Converting League players to AFL is like trying to get weight lifters to convert to running the 10,000 meters track and field. AFL is primarily an endurance sport now, NRL is a power game. Their body types simply arn't suited to it.

      Commenter
      H
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 07, 2012, 9:18AM
      • Yeah I agree that its a strange thing to do. Its all about the marketing and not about what it all means for Israel. He is a quality sportsman no doubt. But the shift is going to be to big. These games, whether soccer, AFL, rugby or league are learned over years from childhood onward. Not in a season or two. The conversion between rugby and league rarely works despite the small gap, and nor will this. But its not about how good Israel is going to be then is it. Its about taking a big name from your biggest rival code in Sydney and rubbing it in their noses. I can see why League supporters are giving him a hard time.

        Commenter
        not convinced
        Date and time
        February 07, 2012, 10:10AM
      • thats why he has taken a year to change his body type ie the stated weight lss, the more running. you read the article, right?

        Commenter
        matty
        Location
        melb
        Date and time
        February 07, 2012, 11:02AM
    • Your so right Wal. "
      Lucky he has Choco there actually teaching him how to play."
      Even luckier that Choco learnt how to coach from the best in the business, who was that again,......Kevin........Kevin.......Oh yeah, Kevin Sheedy.
      Yeah if it wasnt for Choco, Issy wouldnt know anything.
      How many premierships has Choco got......one......wow!
      Methinks you might be from SA Wal? A touch biased?

      Commenter
      Phealan
      Location
      Reality
      Date and time
      February 07, 2012, 10:23AM
      • Not biased at all Phealan. Answer this question:

        When you took up a sport for the first time did you learn it by actually having a go or by watching a video?

        The simple fact is that Sheedy is the spruiker and Choco is the coach. Nothing wrong with that except that Sheedy shows himself to be a goose by suggesting that Falou will learn the game by watching videos.

        Commenter
        Wal
        Location
        Bush
        Date and time
        February 07, 2012, 11:04AM

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