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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
When it comes to knowing football’s biggest names, Al Arabiya senior sports presenter and producer Liliane Tannoury boasts a wealth of experience.
The Lebanese Dubai resident has covered a variety of the sport’s biggest events, including two World Cups, as well as Formula One Grand Prixs and leading horse races. Among many others, the likes of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann and Everton’s Wayne Rooney have all featured on her programmes.
Sport360° caught up with the Dubai Eye contributor to discuss what makes football’s finest tick, plus her tips for a successful career in sports broadcasting.
Away from doing your daily bulletins on Al Arabiya, you also present a monthly programme covering the big leagues in Europe. Who were your favourite interviewees from last season?
I have had a great experience. It is always nice to interview players during the season, or before the season to promote it.
The main players I spoke to were Wayne Rooney, when he was at Manchester United, and also Antoine Griezmann at Atletico Madrid, plus Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero.
I do 11 interviews every season, but those three were the best. They did good ratings for Al Arabiya when they were shown.
From those three, which did you enjoy the most?
It would have to be Antoine Griezmann, because I like his story.
When I got to the Vicente Calderon, it was in the preparations for the new season. Everybody was happy that the new season was only two or three days away.
I could see that Atletico Madrid are all very close, from the owners, to the manager and the players.
Griezmann was very honest and his story, talking about his father and how he went to Spain when he wasn’t wanted in France, showed so much.
I spoke to him in French and that meant he could be more honest and flexible in his responses.
You speak a number of languages. How important is that for your job?
I speak Arabic, English, French, Portuguese and a little bit of Spanish.
This helps a lot. So many players in the Premier League speak Spanish and Portuguese, as well as French.
Most of the players prefer to speak their language, so they are not misunderstood.
What are your main duties with Al Arabiya and what have you learned working there?
I am a senior presenter for Al Arabiya and have been there for 14 years.
I present sports news, four times a week. I can work long hours, from 3pm to 2am.
Fourteen years feels like just one year only. My advice is to focus and concentrate on everything you do.
You need to respect the audience and give them the best we can. You must keep up-to-date and focus on the details.
The devil is in the detail, as you say. You must work like it is your family, your house.
Sports journalism is traditionally male dominated. How proud are you to have made your mark on the industry?
I am really proud that I could do this job.
I advise every girl who wants to be a sports presenter that you will need more ambition, as you have to prove yourself more to the people that think it is their field.
It was the same thing that happened to me 14 years ago when I came here. You have to put in even more efforts than anyone else.
Even if you go on air, the audience are very smart. Any mistake you make, they will know.
Sport audiences often know more details than we do.
It is more difficult for a lady, than it is for a man.
You are regularly a guest on Dubai Eye’s radio show, Sports Tonight, to help promote Al Arabiya. How much do you enjoy working in another medium away from television?
I am a guest on the radio and I like it a lot. I feel I am promoting Al Arabiya on it.
When you work for Al Arabiya as a presenter, you are its image. They [Dubai Eye] help to promote my show, as we talk about what I am doing and what will be on my next show.
I feel I am helping Al Arabiya in the English community. I hope to give them satisfaction in what I am doing, as I want to help them in every way that I can.
As a reporter, you regularly work in Europe. Does this help people there to know Al Arabiya and the channel’s output?
I am so happy and you cannot imagine how satisfied I feel, as this was my goal when going to Europe for the last nine years.
Al Arabiya was initially just recognised as a news channel. But it is now also recognised by Europe’s top clubs as a Gulf television station with an important sports department – I think I contributed to that change, with the help of my colleagues in Al Arabiya.
I am proud that I am now known in the clubs and by the players in Europe. This helps Al Arabiya.
For more information and to keep up-to-date with Tannoury’s latest broadcasts, you can visit www.liliane-tannoury.com.
Christian Cullen’s career can be aptly summed up by the name of the club team where he played the majority of his playing days.
The versatile former Wellington Hurricanes back was a destructive force of nature for both club and country, raining down 46 tries in just 58 Tests for the All Blacks.
That whirlwind figure puts him joint-second on the list of top New Zealand tryscorers alongside Joe Rokocoko and just three behind Doug Howlett. The full-back/winger is the ninth highest international tryscorer in history.
Cullen’s tries per cap record is better than both Howlett and Rokocoko. In fact his figure of 0.793 tries per game is only bettered by fellow Kiwi phenom Julian Savea (0.882, 45 tries in 52 Tests) and Japan’s Daisuke Ohata (1.190) and his ridiculous 69 tries in 58 Tests.
Considering those impressive stats, Cullen’s impact on world rugby was frenetic yet fleeting. It’s remarkable to think he only wore the coveted All Blacks jersey for six years (1996-2002).
The Paekakariki Express’ journey may have been brief but he certainly packed a lot into his 58 caps.
Who knows how many more tries and caps he would have earned had it not been for falling foul of brief All Blacks coach John Mitchell, who omitted Cullen from his 2003 Rugby World Cup squad.
Mitchell admitted he dropped Cullen and fellow icons Taine Randall and Andrew Mehrtens in order to get rid of the star syndrome that had developed after the onset of professionalism – the All Blacks finished third in Australia and Mitchell was sacked, after less than two years at the helm.
Rather than wait around or try to force his way into Mitchell’s plans, Cullen – much like a hurricane – decided instead to up sticks and go and cause chaos elsewhere, although his three-year spell in Ireland with Munster was blighted by injury.
“In 2003 when I went to Ireland I had a bit of an issue with the coach at the time,” Cullen, 41, recalls of his decision to leave the Land of the Long White Cloud in his prime – aged just 27.
“I would have loved to have finished my career there, but I didn’t see a pathway while he (Mitchell) was there. In my mind there was no way back into that team.
“I have no idea (what his issue was). He was a new coach, young, (perhaps) wanted to make his mark. He’s the head guy, he makes his decisions. You live and die by your decisions.
“It wasn’t just me, there was Taine Randall, Mehrtens, a few other blokes. It is what it is. Before the tour I never got picked so I knew while he was there, there was no chance.
“Alan Gaffney (ex-Munster coach) was in Australia and (Chris) Latham had pulled out of his contract so within two weeks I’d made my decision. It might have been better if I’d had longer to decide but I did what I had to do and get out of New Zealand and move on. Munster came up and I made a pretty quick decision.”
So significant was Cullen’s contribution that respected New Zealand journalist Wynne Gray inserted him at No9 on his list of the 100 greatest All Blacks – ahead of the likes of Mehrtens, Ian Jones, Jeff Wilson, Tana Umaga, Olo Brown, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Frank Bunce, Zinzan Brooke, John Kirwan and Wayne Shelford.
“That’s cool if he picks me,” Cullen tells Sport360° in typical laid-back Kiwi style.
“He’s watched a lot of rugby during his time as a reporter and I respect him as a writer, so it’s cool coming from him.
“But I know it’s very, very hard to compare eras and players. There’s certain players, Richie McCaw or Colin Meads, you could easily put up there. But a lot of players, you can’t compare.”
The two-time reigning world champions are in imperious form as they get set to enter the rugby’s most anticipated series – the visit of the British & Irish Lions.
Their Kiwi coach Warran Gatland brings them to New Zealand on the back of a first Lions series triumph in 16 years from Australia four years ago.
Memories, however, of a brutal 3-0 slaying at the hands of the All Blacks in 2005 will perhaps be just as fresh. And although Cullen expects the Lions to make it a closer contest 12 years on, he is predicting the same outcome.
“I think they have the players but, man, that tour is tough,” said Cullen as the Lions kick off their tour against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei today (kick-off 11:35 UAE time).
“All the franchise games are tough. It’s a long tour. Ireland have beaten New Zealand and England think they can beat New Zealand. Eddie Jones has said England should be No1 but you can say that when you don’t play them until 2018.
“They’ll come down with a lot of confidence but like always, can they gel? The Irish with the English, the English with the Welsh. Can they get that cohesion to beat an All Blacks side? I don’t know.
“I spoke to Zinney (Zinzan Brooke) and he reckons they can beat them in one Test and it will all come down to the third and a 2-1 Test series. Personally I think it will be a 3-0.
“I can see it being a close one, I can see the Lions getting close in a few but it will be a massive tour. They’ll have to bring two teams, Test and midweek.
“They’ll have confidence. If you look at Ireland, over the last five games they’ve played New Zealand they should have won three of them. In Dublin they missed the kick, they probably should have won in Christchurch when Dan Carter got the drop goal. The win in Chicago.
“They’re not a bad side but how many players will get picked in this team?
“In terms of the England contingent, how good are they? I don’t know. Ireland have played the number one team in the world and done pretty well, they’re a good side. But I don’t know how good England are.
“You’ve got to get a good coach, good players and gel them quickly. There’s a lot of games, it’s long and there’s no easy games. It’s not like you can roll in with a few nice easy mid-weekers, everyone will want to beat them.”
One reason for Cullen’s supreme confidence is how effortlessly the All Blacks have made the transition from losing a host of legends since their latest World Cup triumph in 2015.
Out went the most capped rugby international ever in Richie McCaw, followed by the highest points scorer in history, Dan Carter, as well as Keven Mealamu, Nonu and Smith.
Their record run of 18 wins (now held jointly with England) was ended in Chicago by a maiden defeat to Ireland last November yet their domination of customary rivals Australia, South Africa and Argentina continued as they steamrollered to a 14th Tri Nations/Rugby Championship success in the past 21 years.
“Playing wise I think we could cover them,” added Cullen.
“Obviously with McCaw and Mealamu, it’s the experience and leadership. The only worry was the midfield, where we lacked, with Ma’a and Conrad gone, but we haven’t really missed a beat. (Malakai) Fekitoa is a yes or no for me, but (Anton) Lienert-Brown came in and he’s been awesome. (Ryan) Crotty came in and he’s like the new Smith, just a solid player who does his job, while Brown is the more skillful player.
“I thought this would be a tough year losing all that experience, but I think the experience of the coaching staff has come through. They realised and knew they’d lose these players. They’ve built their experience and playing base up with Dane Coles, Sam Cane and all these boys who are not starters but have played 40-odd Tests.
“McCaw goes but Cane comes in and he’s had 40 Tests, he knows what’s going on. Beauden Barrett’s the same. Dan Carter goes and he jumps in. If Barrett goes, Sapoaga’s had a few Tests.”