x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Rugby: Australia's Folau is on way North in career greatness

The rookie winger's impressive show and the clash with Lions counterpart has left no one in doubt of his freak talent. Also, Ups and Downs.

Israel Folau, left, tackles George North in what was seen as a memorable clash by the experts. Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images
Israel Folau, left, tackles George North in what was seen as a memorable clash by the experts. Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

Worth the admission fee? Not half. Warren Gatland's pre-match prophecy that George North vs Israel Folau might end up being one for the ages was something of an underestimate.

The battle of the star wingers was worth the OSN subscription fee for the year.

It may even be worth mortgaging the villa to get a late flight and a black market ticket for the Judgment Night Part II in Melbourne in a week's time. Not that anybody would be selling.

This was titanic.

Even Phil Kearns, the former Australiahooker for whom rugby starts and ends at the front row, was purring.

"Remember when wingers were those little useless things who just used to stand around on the wings?" he mused, wistfully, on commentary.

The past, indeed, is overrated.

Age just 24, Folau has already drawn a significant wage in three professional sports. He may be planning another move already, as his rugby union career might never top this.

Where does he go from here? A big money move to Real Madrid or Manchester United? A cameo in the Indian Premier League? You wonder if anyone would be able to afford him.

Back in the mid-1990s when the sport officially went professional, Rupert Murdoch bought the rights to all the major rugby union events exclusively so he could have Jonah Lomu playing on his channels. Maybe he will buy the Wallabies on this evidence, and get Folau to come and play in his garden.

"He is a freak of a talent," James Horwill, the Australia captain, said in his television interview post match of the debutant wide player.

Those terms have been used famously before, used by a shell-shocked Will Carling to describe professional rugby's most famous son, Lomu.

Folau's highlights reel yesterday was a fusion of the three oval ball codes, too. He dotted down Australia's opening try after profiting from the sort of visionary grubber kick usually exploited on the sixth tackle in rugby league, executed by the sublime Will Genia.

And twice during the game, first in the 33rd minute, then later with just 10 minutes to play, he caught a mark over the back of an opponent in the style of what Australian Rules footballers term a "speccy".

His second try was pure union majesty, though. Starting his break 10 yards in to the Lions half, he stepped inside to leave Jonathan Sexton grasping at thin air, handed off another Lions defender before bulldozing his way over Leigh Halfpenny.

That Folau ended on the losing team was a mixture of a) travesty of justice, b) Kurtley Beale's duff studs, and c) the magnificence of his opposite number. If there is a sudden surge across the British Isles in parents naming their babies North, it will have nothing to do with Kim and Kanye.

North might not have taken such a colourful route to the top as Folau. He has trod the more conventional route to greatness - from the Welsh valleys to the Lions summit.

The 21-year-old powerhouse winger had been the man Australia had feared ahead of this Test series, on the evidence of some stunning form in the lead up.

And yet even having him on the field was a risk for the touring side.

He has been having to wake up every three hours in the night to ice a nagging hamstring injury.

A risk, perhaps, but the touring side reaped substantial rewards for getting him out there, most obviously because of his thrilling try.

Catching a Berrick Barnes kick he waltzed past a succession of would-be Wallaby tacklers for an extraordinary score.

He was close to doubling his tally shortly afterwards, with the Television Match Official ruling that his short range effort has been thwarted either by an elbow in touch or a defending hand under the ball.

"A finish like that is the sort of thing you will remember when you are old and grey, I guess," North said afterwards.

Few will forget his try any time soon, either.

 

UPS

Alex Cuthbert (Lions)

One strong-running Welsh winger was hailed as potentially being the difference between the two sides in this series. Happily for the British & Irish Lions, their irrepressible left-winger George North has a clone on the other side of the field. Cuthbert was under-rated - and under the posts.

Quade Cooper (Australia)

Given the rift between the troublesome fly-half and Robbies Deans, the Wallabies coach, it would need a major injury crisis for him to regain his No 10 shirt. Or for his replacement, James O’Connor, to have a shocker. Check and check. The exiled Cooper’s stock rose in absentia.

Neil Jenkins (Lions)

Carrying a tee and pointing people in the right direction when they are lining up a kick, doesn’t sound like the toughest job in the world. There must be some skill to it, though. Australia missed out on 14 points due to errant kicks. The Lions were at 83 per cent. Another housepoint for kicking coach Jenkins.

DOWNS

Christian Leali’ifano (Australia)

You dream your whole life of making a Test debut in international sport. For a rugby player, the ideal intro would be either for or against the Lions, depending on where you are from. Then someone go and headbutt someone's knee after 37 seconds and it is over before it has really begun.

Mike Phillips (Lions)

No shame in being left behind by Will Genia for the opening try of the game - but the least Phillips could have done was attempt to cover back. He looked totally out of puff, even though the game was only 14 minutes old. A serious concern when marking Australia’s most influential player.

Short studs

Australia had such a rapid turnover of players, given the variety of injuries they suffered, they ended up with a flanker playing at inside centre. It was understandable that confusion reigned. There was little excuse for bringing the wrong boots, though. Australia might be 1-0 up if Beale wore longer studs.

pradley@thenational.ae

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