What is it that makes Israel Folau such a compelling sportsman for Australian audiences? Surely there’s no sports celebrity – certainly no footballer – who seems to confound lowbrow and highbrow sports fandom as much as Izzy, who inspires expert opinion pieces and endless comment threads with every move that he makes. If there were an ambassador for Australian sports, it would probably be Folau and yet he’s not an Olympian – even if his talents are Olympian – nor has he had the chance to test his talents against more than a handful of nations, even if they’re the greatest Rugby nations in the world. So what is it that has turned him into one of the most winning and marketable of Australian sporting exports, garnering fanbases in countries in which Rugby flies completely under the radar, let alone on his home turf?
The most basic answer is versatility. While quite a few players have made the switch from League to Union, few have done it with the same panache – the same effortlessness – as Folau. In fact, so effortlessly does Folau sink into each new football niche that you almost subliminally forget how brilliant he was in his last role. Watching him in his legendary rookie year with the Wallabies, you could be forgiven for forgetting that he was instrumental in the 2007 Melbourne Storm watershed, or that he delivered one of the most spectacular goals in his role as winger during Origin 2008 (even if it was in the one game Queensland ended up losing). Only his tenure with the GWS Giants seems to have left a bit of a fizzle, although I sense that wasn’t from any innate ability so much as a lack of conviction. From almost the moment he arrived at Western Sydney, it felt his heart wasn’t in it. Not unlike Hayne during his last few months with the Eels, you sensed a player who had pretty much given up on fulfilling their genius within what they perceived as severely straitened circumstances.
However, whereas Hayne is arguably well on the way to fulfilling that potential – if the last two outings of the 49ers are anything to go by – Folau still hasn’t found one sport that can fully satisfy his explosive abilities. In fact, by his own admission, he’s something of a sports addict, unable to commit to any one game as a spectator or player in an exclusive way. That has tended to take the edge of his sporting genius a little: even his tenure with the Wallabies has been somewhat marred by his performances in crucial All Blacks games, culminating with yet another disastrous Bledisloe Cup. Whether in NRL, AFL or Rugby, you sense that Folau hasn’t quite found his purpose or his promise, even or especially as he’s shone in each area. Perhaps that’s why he’s speculated on NFL in the wake of the Hayne success, although chances are that he’d be equally restless there as well.
And in some ways, that’s the romance of Folau as a sports icon – he loves sports too much to ever commit to one for any length of time. Following NRL players on Twitter, I’ve sometimes been surprised by how far-reaching they are in their sporting tastes, with most watching NFL, basketball and even baseball more than they watch more local, homegrown sports. And there’s certainly no dearth of players in League who could conceivably excel in other sports, with Shaun Johnson – one of my favourite players out there at the moment – coming into the Warriors off a remarkable track record in AFL, basketball and Rugby. Nevertheless, there’s something about Folau’s indecision that seems to exceed regular prolific sportsmanship, to the point where it’s his indecision more than his actual gameplay that has tended to fuel the biggest media scrutiny and sympathy.
And that brings me to the Folau paradox: Izzy is a huge presence as a sportsman, but isn’t really tied to one sport. Of course, the Tahs have built a lot of their recent promotional platform on the fact that he’s been signed until 2018. But that sense of homecoming is only really rousing because you also sense that Folau is a bit of a journeyman player at heart. And that may explain, in the end, why his wanderings have tended to gravitate around Rugby. For League players, there’s a very clear sense that you’re committed to one team for the whole year, even if you occasionally takes breaks for Origin, appear in the Kangaroos or (worst case scenario) get downsized to reserve grade for a couple of weeks. But those exceptions are only exceptional because of the rule: Origin wouldn’t make sense, or be so titillating, if players weren’t housed in a regular stable all year round. Rugby, however, is different. With several different competitions happening at once, and at irregular times and paces, it’s much easier for a footy player like Folau to turn indecision or experimentation to his advantage. Building on the fluid League affiliations that seemed to define the first phase of his football life, he’s proved himself a master at managing the moving pieces that constitute a Rugby career, even if his performances with the Wallabies and Tahs haven’t always been consistently or equally on point.
But that imperfection is also what defines Folau as well: he’s a player who loves sport too much to ever fully identify or inhabit one code, or even one game. He’s the kind of player you only ever glimpse in movement – from pass to pass, competition to competition – rather than the kind of player you can sit down and summarise in a single sentence. And that, for me, is why he’s managed to become a kind of ambassador for Australian sports. In some ways, that’s a tricky role, since, in Australia, sport is a kind of religion, and yet Australians tend to be suspicious of the extroverted religious conviction more typical in America – and the fusion of sport and institutionalised religion is a very American thing generally, which perhaps explains why some of the most vocal religious players in the NRL tend to gravitate towards Mormonism, the most American of religions. That batch includes Folau, but in an odd kind of twist his actual career is too diffuse for his religious position to become too confronting or alienating to the average viewer. Even as it suffuses every stance, stare and posture, it tends to dissociate itself from any specific belief-system and instead attach itself to sport as a pursuit instead. And that’s Folau in a nutshell, really – an emblem of sport as the real Australian religion, which, for me, explains why he has managed to take on such an iconic status in recent years, unrivalled by any other Australian athlete out there.