MELBOURNE, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Israel Folau’s decision to reject a move to the NRL’s Parramatta Eels and switch codes to join the New South Wales Waratahs has given fans of Australia’s rugby league a new target of derision after years of sniping at code-hopping Sonny Bill Williams.
Australian rugby union, however, has dreams of the Sydney-based Waratahs’ new recruit bursting over the try-line in a gold jersey at the 2015 World Cup.
Former rugby league international and Australian Rules football player Folau turned his back on a return to Australia’s popular National Rugby League (NRL), earning a broadside from Eels coach Ricky Stuart after protracted contract talks failed.
The 23-year-old’s recruitment by the Waratahs has been hailed by the struggling Super Rugby side as a potential game-changer, even though Folau last played rugby union in his schooldays.
He also spent two miserable, though lucrative, years failing to come to grips with the intricacies of the indigenous code Australian Rules when recruited in a marketing push for new franchise Greater Western Sydney Giants.
But Folau has the pedigree to line up for Robbie Deans’s Wallabies within the year, according to former Australia centre Tim Horan.
“I’d be surprised if he made the British and Irish Lions but I think in the Rugby Championship he’s got a good opportunity if he earns that position and earns the right,” Horan, a television pundit for Fox Sports told the pay-TV channel, referring to the annual tournament with New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.
”I think there’s no doubt he’ll make it as a player and an athlete and he’s shown that.
“It’s about understanding the game - that’ll be the hardest component for Israel - understanding where the phases go and how the patterns of play work.”
Folau’s comprehension of rugby league is without question.
He scored a match-winning try in his NRL debut as a 17-year-old with the Melbourne Storm and went on to score a record number of tries for a first-year player.
He also became the youngest player to represent Australia in a test when he was selected for a match against New Zealand when 18.
The parallels with 27-year-old Williams’s career, which started in the NRL before switching to rugby union and back again, are obvious.
Williams lined up for the Sydney-based Canterbury Bulldogs at the age of 18 and became New Zealand’s youngest international after a handful of NRL appearances.
Both controversially walked out on successful NRL careers, with Williams tearing up a five-year deal with the Bulldogs to play rugby union with French club Toulon in 2008, and Folau taking a multi-million dollar deal to defect to Australian Rules in 2011.
Both have been tagged money-hungry mercenaries by disaffected rugby league fans, but Williams is set to return to the NRL next year with the Sydney Roosters, his CV boasting a World Cup victory as part of the triumphant All Blacks side last year.
Australian rugby union has welcomed more than a few rugby league converts to its ranks, rewarding some with international caps and World Cup appearances, and sending others back to the NRL.
Having walked out of the AFL halfway through a four-year deal with the Giants, Folau has signed a one-year deal with the Waratahs, who have drawn jeers from their own fans for playing boring rugby.
The agreement may seem like Folau is hedging against failure in another code, or buying time to allow NRL clubs to find room in their salary caps for the following season, but he said he would love to join the likes of Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers and Lote Tuqiri in the club of dual internationals for Australia.
“Everyone wants to represent their country and that’s an exciting time,” he told reporters at a media conference in Sydney.
“First of all I’ve just got to worry about playing good footy with the Waratahs and that will come afterwards.”
Easier said than done, according to former Wallabies coach John Connolly.
“If Folau is coming from no background at all, he could really struggle,” Connolly told local media this week.
Editing by Peter Rutherford