Illustration: Edd Aragon
Should Israel Folau play for the Wallabies against the British and Irish Lions?
The experts will decide. Or, at least in this case, the Wallabies coaching staff.
But of a player branded, variously, a ''serial code-hopper'', ''AFL failure'', ''NRL traitor'' and - by one unlicensed soothsayer - a ''Super Rugby super flop'', the fans will ask a different question: Do we want Folau to play for the Wallabies?
Would his selection in an iconic Australian team reward the disposable loyalties of contemporary sport? Would it be - as Brumbies coach Jake White ventured - ''a bit of an indictment on the jumper''? Or would it simply underline the new reality, whereby the best talent goes to the highest bidder - or, in this case, the code that didn't spend too long working the abacus trying to ascertain the salary cap ramifications of Folau's recruitment?
Such questions presume there still are among the leather arm-patch brigade those who maintain that a player should be ''worthy'' to wear the Wallabies jersey. If so, perhaps the best people to judge are those Folau has forsaken.
Usually, the code-hoppers and multi-club soldiers of fortune leave behind a trail of bitterness and ill will. Sonny Bill Williams, most famously, left an entire league outraged by his audacious, mid-contract flight. Should SBW leave Sydney again to return to the All Blacks after fulfilling his one-year agreement, you suspect only a Roosters premiership would spare him more scorn.
Yet, in Folau's case, you doubt any of the four clubs he has represented in three codes would not write him a favourable reference. Even those at the NRL club he almost joined, Parramatta, did not slander Folau when he signed for the Waratahs. They believed the NRL, not the player, had let them down.
Storm? The salary cap problems were obvious - far more so later - and they knew he was likely to go north.
Brisbane Broncos? Didn't want to lose him. But, spiced with the customary dose of self-interest, Folau's selection for Queensland when he had already signed with the AFL was a form of ''no hard feelings''.
Greater Western Sydney? You won't hear a bad word against Folau despite his expensive - even embarrassing - failure to make the grade. One that, at the time, seemed to have exposed a weakness in character, as much as technique.
Fellow convert Karmichael Hunt knuckled down on the Gold Coast and made an unexpected success of his new career. Folau was, from day one, a square peg in the AFL's round holes. The game seemed to move about him and, in pursuit of the ball, he looked like a child chasing soap bubbles on a windy day.
The disparity in performance seemed a consequence of Hunt's relative maturity, application and even his work ethic compared with the younger, perhaps less dedicated Folau. Now, as Folau makes good fist of his time with the Waratahs, it seems more a reflection of the physical limitations (particularly a lack of aerobic capacity) and the sheer difficulty of playing key forward, perhaps the most difficult position in the southern code.
Another, less frequently mentioned factor has also afforded Folau some sympathy as he tried to crack three codes. It was a factor raised, respectfully, in Good Weekend's recent story of the sad death of Wests Tigers' young Mosese Fotuaika. It is the responsibility young Polynesian players, particularly, feel to provide for their extended families.
Understandably, Folau and his agents have always maintained it is the challenge of the game he has joined, rather than the money, that has been the crucial element in his decision to change code or club. Perhaps so. However, in the backdrop, family responsibility has seemed to play a part.
Another reason Folau has not suffered the vilification of other supposed turncoats is his almost dreamy innocence. There is something almost childish and naive in the big man's public persona. A charming lack of guile. Almost as if a talent beyond his control has taken him from one field to another, and he has no say in it.
Then there is the pure way Folau plays his game - and, in recent weeks, someone else's. That rare combination of power and grace. The soaring leaps, brilliant dash and muscularity of an athlete whose natural ingredients make Bircher muesli look like Coco Pops. First in Super Rugby cameos then, more recently, against the Bulls, the Kings and the Stormers, in more sustained bursts.
Should Folau play for the Wallabies? Opinions seem sharply divided. The dissenters suggest he is too new, too callow, too fragile to face the Lions. The supporters say he is simply too talented to ignore.
Do we want Folau to play? Through these inexpert eyes, much more than the Lions would.
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