SYDNEY (Reuters) - Code-convert Israel Folau could figure for the Wallabies against the British and Irish Lions later this year but there will be no return for 110-cap flanker George Smith, coach Robbie Deans said on Thursday.
Former rugby league international Folau has played just two Super Rugby matches for New South Wales Waratahs at fullback since making the switch from Australian Rules (AFL) but has clearly shown enough potential for Deans.
“He’s not that far away, he’s on the radar,” the New Zealander told reporters.
”His entry into union has been very good. It’s not easy going from AFL to union, so he’s shown enough encouraging signs and we’ll just keep watching.
“The tough area for Israel is the contact area and that’s one he’ll have to master and master quickly. But he’s smart and he’ll get that done.”
Standing 195 cm (6ft 5in) tall and weighing in at 98 kg (216 lb), Folau has already shown he has the build, handling skills, power and pace to cause problem for defences.
It was always going to be difficult for Deans to ignore such a potentially potent weapon and, despite sometimes looking a little lost in his first couple of matches, has scored one try and helped set up two more in his two games.
While there is a gulf between the provincial rugby and a test against the Lions, Deans believes Folau’s experience playing international and interstate rugby league in Australia gave him a good grounding in “big match” atmosphere.
“He’s a bloke who is not going to be daunted by the occasion, he’s gone through a rapid learning curve in two weeks,” Deans added.
”He’s shown he has the capacity to learn and he’s clearly got some skills that are of value. It’s very much around habits in many ways.
“Whether he can master those instinctive responses fast enough - but there’s 15 rounds of Super Rugby, so that’s a good apprenticeship.”
Former Wallabies skipper Smith has no need for an apprenticeship and should make his return to Super Rugby on Saturday after being named on the bench for the ACT Brumbies’ match against Folau and the Waratahs on Saturday.
Once considered one of the best openside flankers in the world, Smith retired from international rugby in 2010 before leaving Canberra for a lucrative move to France.
Filling the number seven shirt is the least of worries for Deans, however, with Brumby David Pocock, Waratah Michael Hooper and young Queensland Red Liam Gill all in impressive form.
So while Deans welcomed Smith’s return to Australia, he foresaw no place in his squad for the 32-year-old for the three tests against the Lions in June and July.
“He’s not a possibility for us right now,” the New Zealander told reporters. “It’s good for the Brumbies but we’ve got some very good sevens playing here already.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Patrick Johnston