Israel Folau has ensured he is hot property for years to come.
Photo: Getty Images
If Israel Folau confirms he is returning to the NRL with the Parramatta Eels as expected, it will cap off one of the smartest marketing moves from any Australian sportsman.
Folau has been slammed from pillar to post for his decision to defect to the AFL because he never got a grasp on the game during his two-year stint, or in his words, never had the "passion" for it.
Brownlow Medallist, Norm Smith Medallist and triple premiership player with the Brisbane Lions Simon Black was among Folau's critics, saying that he even tried to help his opponent during a match they played in May this year.
"The ball came into Izzy's forward line so I told him where to run. I said to Izzy 'mate, run over there and you will get the ball'. But he didn't. He just had no idea," Black said.
What Black says may be true, but perhaps it's Folau who has him, and all his other critics fooled.
Perhaps it was never about Folau becoming a seasoned AFL player. Maybe, all along his goal was just to play one game in the AFL to complete the rare transition of playing at the top level in the NRL and the AFL. In the end he bettered that – he played 13.
Before crossing codes at the end of 2010, Folau was one of the best young players in the NRL. He played in a premiership with the Melbourne Storm in 2007 (later stripped for salary cap breaches), and represented both Queensland and Australia.
If Folau had taken the easy option and remained in the NRL, he may have been a better rugby league player now than he will be when he returns next year – but he would have been just that – a rugby league player, known mainly in New South Wales and Queensland.
His decision to switch codes for two seasons made him, along with fellow AFL convert Karmichael Hunt, the two biggest names in Australian sport. Folau is now well-known in the AFL states of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, and is an even bigger name in the NRL states, firstly because of his decision to cross codes, and secondly, to switch back.
Put simply, he is now a dynamite marketing proposition and will attract huge sponsorship interest.
Say what you like about Folau's ability as an AFL player. The reality is he's played 13 games at the top level. That's 13 more than most.
The beauty of Folau's situation is that he's still only 23, giving himself enough time to get into his rugby league groove again.
Folau comes back at the perfect time, with the game having only recently announced a $1 billion TV deal, and hence the salary cap is likely to skyrocket.
He originally signed a four-year deal with the AFL worth $1 million a year, one which blew the money he was on at the time in the NRL out of the water.
While he won't see the second $2 million of that $4 million contract, he picked up far more money in the AFL than he would have in the NRL over those two years, and now he comes back to the game he loves with its financial coffers full. It was a financial masterstroke.
Adding to Folau's marketability is the fact that his stint in the AFL has helped him present himself better in front of the media.
When he announced his signing with GWS in 2010, he struggled to speak clearly during the press conference and offered little to a press pack wanting to hear more about such an historic announcement.
When he announced his departure last week, he sounded like a different man, speaking very eloquently as he quit the code.
Rugby league followers will say his decision to go back is a win for the NRL. AFL followers will say that they've lost nothing with his departure but that his brief stint was great for the publicity of their code in western Sydney. It seems, though, that the real winner in all of this is Folau himself.
Perhaps we've all been sucked in and taken along for the ride. Nice one, Izzy.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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