Israel Folau could become a Wallabies great - he just has to want it.
Photo: Getty Images
When Israel Folau pulls on the blue jersey of the Waratahs to face off against old NRL foe Cooper Vuna in his side's opening trial match of 2013 against the Rebels, he will begin what is probably the most important year of his career as a footballer.
A good season could well lead to the kind of global superstardom that must have been a huge factor in enticing him to the code, while a hopelessly poor year could lead to another switch: back to NRL for 2014, playing three codes in three years and basically rendering four years of his precious career pointless.
But that seems unlikely. Folau will have a good year - one that will see him stay in rugby. But what exactly will count as true 'success' for the 23-year-old? It's implausible he will sensationally become one of the finest backs in rugby, making a Sonny Bill Williams-like impact and firing the Waratahs to rare glory.
No. What is more likely is that, playing on the wing, he exhibits enough of his unique attributes, and does some truly spectacular things once or twice, to merit a longer contract before the season's halfway point and mark him out as a rugby player of immense potential for 2014 and beyond. There will be plenty of snafus and perhaps some embarrassing moments, but ultimately he will have a happy time - something he hasn't enjoyed since 2010.
And even if he doesn't have a devastating impact, there is still the astonishing prospect of him taking on Tommy Bowe, George North, Tim Visser et al in the Lions series. The peculiarity of his skills makes the likes of Drew Mitchell and Nick Cummins seem a little humdrum, with the prospect of Folau and Digby Ioane on the wings for the Wallabies one to salivate over.
The aerial factor
Even before he played AFL, Folau was an almighty force in the air. His time in the Victorian code has only honed this skill, and he arrives at the Waratahs with the potential to become the greatest leaper rugby has ever known.
As NSW assistant coach Daryl Gibson has noted, the cross-field kick has not been fully explored in rugby as it has in league. In Berrick Barnes, the Waratahs happen to have one of the country's most accurate exponents of this art (without the audacity of Quade Cooper's kicking, of course). Barnes and Folau could strike up the sort of partnership that despite opposition defences knowing exactly what is coming, will be nigh on impossible to prevent. In this scenario, Barnes' background as a Brisbane Bronco may well help.
In addition, with the prevalence of the up and under in the modern game, Folau's capacity to take a high ball (above his head, even) could be utilised from a defensive standpoint too.
To many, the most important factor in forecasting Folau's performance in rugby is the condition of his body. One might have assumed that he would return to the chunkier physique of his NRL days in order to improve his chances of smashing through the gainline and finishing off tries. But it needn't be that way, as the Waratahs appear to have shrewdly noted.
Wingers in rugby run a lot more off the ball than in league. Their defensive responsibilities demand it, therefore his exceptional aerobic fitness will be handy in this way. But perhaps more interesting, his anaerobic endurance allows him to still have plenty of burst efforts left in the tank come the latter stages of games, making him a fine weapon to run lines through the ruck or in midfield to exploit tiring forwards.
Despite the vast physical and technical differences between the two rugby codes, some things will be very familiar for Folau. Vital to rugby is support play, one-on-one tackles (he should have few problems here), offloads and the concept of 'go forward'. Folau's natural instincts from NRL will include tracking breaks, scoring tries in tight corners ¬- one area league wingers are superior to their rugby counterparts - and exploiting overlaps.
In short, the basics will come flooding back. And his incisiveness in these areas gives the Waratahs something they have horribly lacked in recent seasons.
Harmony at the Waratahs
Had Folau played for NSW in 2012, he may have had trouble getting out of bed in the morning let alone performing well on the paddock, such was their malaise.
But while it may be very early in his reign, coach Michael Cheika seems to be bringing about a more coherent and united structure to the troubled franchise. Imagine a player such as Folau, trying to find his feet amid a new game and new team culture, having also to deal with a desperately poor season and constant savagings from the media.
Whether Folau succeeds or fails in 2013 depends significantly on how content the Waratahs are off the pitch, as well as whether they produce rugby good enough to earn them a finals spot. Folau's initial impressions of rugby will come from how these Waratahs start the year, particularly their much-maligned pack. Cheika appears to be fostering an environment that bodes well.
Both parties must commit
Folau, despite coming across as a puzzled young man who doesn't really know what he wants, surely must be looking at rugby beyond 2013. It goes without saying that should he have an eye on somewhere else for 2014, 2013 will be the dampest of squibs and another unattractive episode in his career. Likewise, the Waratahs must see him as an investment and judge him on what he may become in a year, and sign him up accordingly.
Hopefully, Folau's eyes will be opened to the global profile of rugby, particularly during the Lions series. He has the opportunity to make a play for a World Cup spot for 2015, held in England amid fervent interest and in some colossal stadiums. Should he stick it out until then, it will be a testament to his character as well as ability: commitment and loyalty has not really been something he has showcased in recent times.
Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri and Mat Rogers have been Australia's most successful league converts. Folau's more specialised skills and supreme athleticism make him a more exciting prospect than all of them. 2013 could be the first year of something remarkable, should he be willing to persevere and look beyond the short term.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.