Whenever you drop by one of the Wallabies hugely popular fan days – it’s not hard to spot who the favorite player is. Just follow the excited cries of “Izzy, Izzy, Izzy.”
There in the middle of a teeming pack of young fans, small hands thrust upwards, clamoring in admiration, you’ll find the beaming face and sunshine smile of 28-year-old full-back ‘Isileli’ (Israel) Folau. It’s easy to spot why Folau is so popular.
He won’t leave until everyone gets a signature; he welcomes everyone, young and old, with the same infectious smile; and in every interaction is the deep humility and gentle spirit that has seen him excel in three football codes – league, AFL and rugby union.
The dual international, State of Origin winning, 55-Test star has a positive message for all of the Wallabies of the future.
TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE: Rugby Championship 2017
“For a young kid that enjoys being active and playing sport the first thing I always tell them is to have fun and enjoy themselves,” he says, “especially at that age. It’s not all serious.
“Sometimes they can get caught up in the competitive aspect and forget to simply have fun. A lot of the kids just love to get out there with their mates and enjoy the company. So just as long as they are having fun and doing that, that’s the main thing.
“There are changes as you get a bit older but for most kids I tell them to really enjoy themselves.”
It’s this simple heart-felt message which Folau carries into all his own games and his interactions with fans, team-mates – even opponents: a pure love of the game.
“Rugby’s a team sport so you need your team-mates to work with,” adds Folau. “Obviously, there’s different physique shapes for guys to play the game, which is a great thing because it caters to a lot of different people.
“It’s a great opportunity to go down and play with your mates; for us at this level it’s something we really enjoy doing and it’s the same for the kids as well.”
Whether he was running out to play for Lurnea Public School south-west of Sydney, where he grew up, or for the Wallabies against the All Blacks, as he will be this Saturday, the same grin lights up his face.
Several years ago however Folau became concerned that kids were concentrating too much on the physical side of sport and forgetting other facets of their development, such as reading.
So along with David Harding he created the “Izzy Folau” series of books.
“A lot of the kids at school were not getting into the educational side of reading,” he explains.
“A lot of kids enjoy their sport and love watching it so I just thought of the idea of putting out a book for kids, especially for kids that love rugby or sport in general.
“Hopefully, it’s something that would catch their eye so they could potentially start reading, but also read something they enjoy reading about. For me it’s a small project but something that I was really passionate about doing, more so to see kids get involved and really get into their reading time and also enjoy books that they really love.”
Reception has been overwhelmingly positive with Izzy often asked to sign copies at appearances and training sessions.
“All the feedback’s been really positive” he says.
“A lot of the kids come to training or after a game, and bring the book or mention the book, that they love reading it. For me it’s really encouraging – that was why we wanted to do it. It puts a smile on my face to see that kids really enjoyed reading the book.”
But Folau has other things on his mind at the moment including his upcoming marriage to New Zealand netball star Maria Tutaia. The pair are a celebrity couple Down Under, having been together since 2015, although Folau is not one to embrace the limelight off the field, with his main social engagement each week being church on a Sunday.
“It’s all going really well,” he says of his nuptials. “Thankfully I don’t have to do that much, my fiancée is looking after all the arrangements.
“It’s obviously been a bit tough distance wise (Maria in New Zealand and Folau in Australia).
“The great thing is we both understand the situation that we’re in and we both love each other. It’s exciting times for us and we’re certainly looking forward to it.”
Folau credits two-time Commonwealth gold medallist Tutaia with bringing, “a great balance to my life.”
“I think the best thing she’s done is making me think about my surroundings and the people around me,” he adds.
“I’ve really had a pretty easy run. I’ve just had to look after myself and my family but she’s a total opposite to me, she’s really brought that good balance into who I am as a person.”
Who Folau is (partly), is a world class athlete and like other great athletes, such as Roger Federer, he has managed to stay at the top for over a decade. Folau says that the battle to stay on top is largely mental.
“The mindset is you always have to push yourself to get better if you want to stay at that level,” says Folau, having scored 26 tries in 55 caps for the Wallabies.
“That’s what’s really helped me. I always feel like there’s room to improve, to get better. I’m always trying to push myself in different areas of my game to really improve and up my game.
“I’m never feeling comfortable. That’s a big contribution to my success rate at this level. Staying hungry and trying to improve on a week to week basis. Not getting comfy.”
— Israel Folau (@IzzyFolau) August 16, 2017
Although Folau’s individual form has been (as usual) impressive this year, team results for Australia’s Super Rugby contingent and Test level have suffered and he understands the frustration of loyal fans.
“It’s tough when results are against you” he offers, with his own NSW Waratahs winning just four of 15 matches.
“But we’re really trying to embrace the situation that we’re in.
“Realising that with footy, same as life, you’re always going to get things that don’t go your way, so I look at that opportunity I guess as place of growth. Without any challenges or obstacles you have to face, there’s obviously no growth or moving forward.
“So I try to look at in a positive way, doing it with your team-mates. I try to be vocal and talk to guys on a positive level each day to continue putting the work in to embrace the situation that we’re in.”
And what of Australia’s chances for the Rugby Championship? Written off due to a poor run of results and the overall dominance of New Zealand, but Folau, true to form, remains optimistic.
“It’s obviously been a tough period of time. But knowing what’s going on internally, there are some really exciting times coming up and certainly a pay-off from a fans point of view.”
BLEDISLOE CUP BUILD-UP
On the return of Kurtley Beale
“You grow that extra leg when you know you have him beside you. He brings a lot more confidence to your game and it’s exciting. Guys like KB, they don’t come around too often.”
On playing the All Blacks
“Everyone’s keen. We’ve been working hard as a team now for the last couple of weeks. I think we’re building really nicely. The preparation has been really good, now the fun begins. We really can’t wait to get out their and play.”
On the Wallabies fitness
“The (intense training camp) definitely helped but as a team there’s more to it than just all that hard work that we out in. Things have got to click off the field as well. A lot of the game smarts have got to come in as well. We need to have a fine balance between all the things that we’ve been doing. I’m pretty confident in the things we’ve been doing as a team that it can work on Saturday.”