When Israel Folau was spotted having a coffee with the NRL’s head of football Todd Greenberg last week, it fuelled speculation that a return to rugby league was on the cards for the dual international.
Combined with sightings of Bulldogs coach Des Hasler at a Waratahs match – reportedly to watch Kurtley Beale play – it had the rugby union community in a slight panic, fearful they may be losing two of their biggest drawcards, and best players, to the 13 man-a-side game.
Folau hosed down any rumours on Fox Sports’ Rugby HQ on Thursday night, proclaiming the coffee was merely a chance meeting, along with highlighting the fact that it was Greenberg’s birthday and the two know each other well.
Meanwhile, Hasler also attempted to downplay his attendance at a rugby game by saying that he hadn’t even spoken to Beale or his manager, and was simply there to watch some footy.
As you can imagine, both denials did little to squash the rumours, mainly because such stories improve newspaper sales and click rates, but also because we’ve grown accustomed to treating such comments with suspicion. Sports history is littered with examples of players, coaches, officials and managers not exactly telling the truth.
It won’t be a popular opinion among The Roar‘s rugby league fraternity, but both players should stay in rugby.
Israel Folau was a wonderful rugby league player. His strength, speed, athleticism and jumping ability made him a sensation. He broke try-scoring records as a rookie, and quickly rose up the ranks to Origin and international honours. He was the youngest player to represent Australia, at just 18 years of age, and widely regarded as one of the best players in the game after just four seasons of first-grade football.
He was so talented that AFL club the Greater Western Sydney Giants signed him to a contract. You can be a cynic if you like and suggest that it was done purely for PR purposes, but that only serves to highlight how popular, admired and well-known Folau was.
Folau then turned his hand to rugby union, and much like in rugby league, was a sensation right from the beginning. He scored on debut for the Wallabies against the British and Irish Lions last season, and crosses the line with alarming regularity in Super Rugby while wearing the Waratahs’ sky blue.
He has found his home in rugby union and should stay in that code.
Early on in his rugby career, his defence was a little suspect. However, adjusting to the defensive principles in union was always going to take some time, and he’s now excellent in that department. But his attack was extraordinary right from the start.
Folau’s ability to finish and counter-attack have been a revelation in rugby, and his impact has been profound not just for the Waratahs, but the Wallabies. Though it’s a team game, it’s no coincidence that both teams are looking the best they have for near on ten years with Izzy at the back.
Though Folau has already achieved a lot individually in the game, team achievements like a Super Rugby title, the Bledisloe Cup, the Rugby Championship, and the holy grail of rugby, the World Cup, are all on offer, and hopefully attainable, in the next 16 months.
It would be great if he stayed in rugby for at least that long, and attempted to cement his union legacy with some important silverware.
It’s also worth mentioning how miserable Folau looked playing AFL, and by contrast, how often we now see him smile. He’s clearly enjoying the game, and you can’t put a price on that. That’s not to suggest he wouldn’t enjoy rugby league again, but I’m always wary of sacrificing being happy today for possibly being happy tomorrow.
Beale on the other hand, is not currently in the Wallabies starting XV, and with the team riding a seven-game winning streak, that’s not likely to change anytime soon, barring injury.
Is that enough to make him think about an NRL career?
Beale has a somewhat chequered past off the field, but being back home in Sydney with his family has helped him concentrate on his football, and his brilliance has been on show again this year.
Once he and Waratah teammate Brendan Foley stopped getting in each other’s way this season, the pairing blossomed at fly-half and inside centre. In many respects, they are the perfect complement for each other: Foley playing the cool, measured game at number 10, with Beale displaying all his flair and x-factor at 12.
However, one of Beale’s strengths – his versatility – may also count against him in getting his run-on Wallaby jersey back. Having played fly-half, inside centre and fullback, he’s viewed as the perfect Wallabies bench player.
Though that makes him a fantastic asset for Australia, it also makes him an attractive target for rugby league clubs. If he is in any way disgruntled about sitting on the bench, he may be open to a code switch. And make no mistake about it, Beale would be an incredible rugby league player.
The Bulldogs have him earmarked for a fullback spot, but he’d be just as dynamic at halfback. His pace, footwork, vision, ball skills and boot would all ensure that he would adapt to league, and his propensity to excite would make him a crowd favourite.
Considering I support the Bulldogs, I’d love to see him in the famous blue and white jersey. But, just like Izzy, I’d prefer Beale stayed in rugby union.
The Waratahs and Wallabies – led by Michael Cheika and Ewen McKenzie respectively – both have a strong culture at the moment, and it’s important for Beale’s continued development and maturity that he stays in those environments. That’s not a knock on the Bulldogs or the NRL, it’s just a fact.
And if Beale is annoyed by not being in the Wallabies run-on side, that’s absolutely fantastic. It shows he has pride, desire and hunger.
However, you don’t run away from that challenge. You don’t quit when faced with adversity. You show character. You prove people wrong. You take back what you think is rightfully yours. You win your spot back.
That’s what Beale should do. So he should stay in rugby.