x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

British & Irish Lions: Australia's Israel Folau gets an international taste of XV

Former Rugby League player excited to get the chance to represent Australia against the British & Irish Lions.

Israel Folau will be ready for the big stage having played rugby league State of Origin games at Brisbane.
Israel Folau will be ready for the big stage having played rugby league State of Origin games at Brisbane.

BRISBANE, Australia // The code-switching Israel Folau will become a dual international when he makes his Wallabies debut against the Lions on Saturday, one of three new caps in an Australia lineup aiming to repeat their 2001 series win over the combined British & Irish team.

The former Australia rugby league international started playing rugby union only this season after a brief stopover in the Aussie rules Australian Football League.

Folau, who has played 13 matches - mostly at fullback - for the New South Wales Waratahs, will make his Wallabies debut on the right wing along with the Brumbies pair Ben Mowen, a backrower, and Christian Lealiifano, a centre, in the first Test at Brisbane.

It is a ground Folau is familiar with, having already experienced one of the toughest battlegrounds in contact sports - the annual rugby league State of Origin.

Folau and Lealiifano will figure in a reshaped Wallabies backline with the Melbourne Rebels playmaker James O'Connor starting at fly-half for only the second time in a Test match and Berrick Barnes at fullback.

The veteran scrum-half Will Genia will control the backline featuring his Reds teammate Digby Ioane on the left wing and Lealiifano will combine with the experienced utility Adam Ashley-Cooper in the centres.

"Certainly, up there with what I've achieved in the past," Folau said. "This is a very exciting time for me. It's a great achievement. Saturday night is going to be huge and I can't wait to get out there."

James Horwill, the Queensland Reds lock, was named as captain of a team that includes only six starters from Australia's previous Test - a win over Wales in Cardiff in November.

The Waratahs dominate this starting XV with seven players. The Super Rugby-leading ACT Brumbies have four and the 2011 Super Rugby champion Queensland Reds have three in the Test match being played on their home ground.

In announcing his Lions quad, Warren Gatland showed he will stick with eight players from his Six Nations-winning Welsh line-up, including the flanker Sam Warburton as captain. The Ireland veteran Brian O'Driscoll, who produced a standout appearance in his Lions debut at age 22 in the first-Test win over Australia in 2001, will start in the centres with Jonathan Davies.

The Lions won their first five matches on this tour convincingly before the second-string team lost 14-12 to the Brumbies on Tuesday night, the first defeat for the Lions against an Australian provincial team since 1971.

The team Gatland selected for the Test has very little resemblance to the midweek lineup. Folau will be marking the big Welsh winger George North, who overcame a hamstring injury to take his place in the first Test.

Gatland said the battle between North and Folau would be "worth the fare in itself" and promised the Australian winger would be the target for plenty of attention due to his inexperience in defending on the wing. Deans has no doubt his rookie winger can handle what has been earmarked as one of the most compelling head-to-head duels of the match.

"Izzy, it's not really a debut; he's played international sport before," Deans said. "One advantage that Israel has is that they've never faced him, previously. They will have witnessed what he's capable of, and they'll be wanting to limit that, because he is a bloke that makes things happen when he gets his hands on the ball. And it's fully our intent to get the ball in his hands."

Australia's squad has been in camp for three weeks, with the frontline players skipping the Lions' tour matches.

Folau's inclusion has been endorsed by several former Wallabies, including the dual international Lote Tuqiri, with most predicting he can make a similar impact to Jason Robinson's run-on debut for the Lions in 2001, when he scored in the third minute of the series and set the tourists on course for an upset first-Test win over the then World Cup champion Australians.

The Wallabies struck back to win the second and third Tests in that series, and Deans is aiming to avoid any repeat of the ambush in Brisbane by including the sizable Lealiifano and Adam Ashley-Cooper in midfield.

Deans said Lealiifano is a "very well-rounded player" who will bolster the Wallabies in attack and defence. "He's been a big part of the emergence of the Brumbies. He's opened up the edges of the field, and he's got a huge work rate, defensively."

 

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