Israel Folau ... didn't want to "bag" the NRL. Photo: Anthony Johnson
Israel Folau says the truth about his dramatic decision to join the Waratahs, rather than the Eels, will emerge one day. Meanwhile, speculation - informed and otherwise - fills the void.
One plausible theory, propagated by Greater Western Sydney Giants coach Kevin Sheedy, is that Folau was reluctant to be used as a weapon in rugby league's war against the AFL in Sydney's western suburbs. Sheedy, always eager to stir the pot, claims Folau did not want to ''bag'' the AFL.
''I think there is an underlying comment out there that the NRL wanted him to bag the AFL, and he wouldn't do it,'' Sheedy said this week. ''Maybe Israel Folau was being asked not only to sign with NRL, but also to bag the AFL. I don't think he felt comfortable with that at all.''
Another source claimed Folau had been told he would be expected to renounce his involvement with GWS, state publicly that he regretted the switch and become a figurehead for aggressive promotional campaigns in the west. But, having spent the past two years playing the reverse role for the AFL and GWS, Folau was reluctant to be used in the same manner again.
Instead, the publicity-shy Folau wanted to concentrate solely on his football - regardless of which code he played. Not be the ''face of the game'' or instrumental in a tit-for-tat battle with the AFL.
For its part, the NRL dismisses any suggestion Folau was asked to take part in an anti-AFL marketing campaign or criticise the AFL or the Giants. An NRL spokesman said no league officials had met Folau since he left GWS, and the only contact had been with his agent Isaac Moses. And that, the spokesman added pointedly, ''was when [Moses] was still accredited''.
''We didn't want [him] to be involved in any points-scoring exercise [against the AFL],'' the spokesman said. ''That was not in our interests or his interests.''
The NRL claims the only offer made to Folau, outside his club contract, was to work with Nathan Hindmarsh at the NRL's western Sydney academy, and that no financial incentives had been discussed. ''We never reached a stage of talking about anything else,'' the spokesman said. Upon his departure, GWS claimed Folau's media profile had been well worth the estimated $3 million commitment made over the past two seasons.
Whether Sheedy was simply making mischief, it seems the AFL is still gaining some mileage from its association with the code-hopping star. Whether Folau was asked to criticise the AFL, the Giants have again deliberately shone a light on the inability of the NRL to get its man.
What does seem genuine is that Folau retains an affection for the AFL, despite his inability to master the game - perhaps understandable given the size of the cheques he banked. At his media conference on Tuesday, Folau said he had left the AFL ''because I didn't have the passion for the game''. But there is believed to have been no bitterness on either side, and the Giants were satisfied with the exposure he had provided and, although they have not said so publicly, resigned to the fact Folau would not make it.
Folau's decision to accept a lesser offer to play for the Waratahs has been ascribed, by many, to the time taken by the NRL to approve the deal put together by Parramatta. However, the relative neutrality of the Waratahs might be something of a safe harbour for a player keen to avoid further controversy.
Folau acknowledged on Tuesday the criticism he had received for his code-hopping had affected him. ''I class myself as a true person to me and my family, so what has been said is upsetting,'' he said.
''There were a number of factors in my decision to join the NSW Waratahs. I left GWS because I didn't have the passion for the game, but because of timings I didn't know if I'd get anything [in other codes].''
As ever, the gentle, softly spoken Folau came across as an unlikely weapon in a propaganda war. One reason the NRL might yet be better off without him.
with ROHAN CONNOLLY
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