For the Love of the Game – The Folau Experiment

The return of Israel Folau to rugby league has already raised a number of questions about sport, such as: whether it is possible to bend one’s body and skill from one ballsport’s requirements form to another very different ; the presence and power of money in the commercialised modern sporting world ; the very success of the GWS Giants experiment in western Sydney ; the future success of the Parramatta Eels.  It raises all these points, but also a very important element in the life of a young, developing man – the passion and engagement of a human being wishing to be very best at what they do.  This is why the discussion of Folau’s decision is pretty important in our wider culture, not just football.

As a Swans supporter of long standing who put himself in the frame of backing the GWS Giants, I have experienced a range of emotions, arguments, surges of intense engagement that is the continuing discourse of AFL.  There have been a number of things I have observed, which have led to a set of current reactions to Folau’s decision.

There has been the argument that someone of Folau’s shape and cultural background is not cut out to play AFL – the nature v nurture argument.  It was one forcefully put by Greg Baum’s piece (or to be more accurate, rant) where he said “that I don’t doubt that he tried but all he managed in the end was to reinforce the certainty that, overwhelmingly, footballers are born, not made. All that expensive nurture notwithstanding, nature wins.” It is an commonplace but ultimately poor argument.  One can, as many have, taken at face value the lack of stamina Folau had as games went on in the season. Face value only, however – many of the first year AFL players in the Giants faded as the season went on.  Many AFL experts who watched all of Folau’s games, like Neil Cordy, through the year were saying that Folau needed a good 2 years of hard slog to become a top flight player, and that he had the potential.  Cordy uses the example of Mike Pyke, the Canadian rugby player turned Swan – a player who is rapidly becoming an excellent ruckman is the prime example of this point. It took him a while to hit the heights he has now reached – his contributions in the 2012 finals series were crucial.  Folau could also have made an effective ruckman – he was developing a liking for the set play and could see the need for clever clearance play as the season went on.  We will never know, as Kevin Sheedy has said. It doesn’t follow automatically, therefore, that Folau wasn’t ever going to be a great player physically. That, I really suspect, is more a question for those who know the game in detail – the sport science people who were working to give Folau greater endurance.

The place of money in modern sport was very much a issue in the foreground of any discussion around Folau’s place in the Giants. Many in Melbourne questioned the wisdom of spending so much on a player who had never played the game. It was a core part of Baum’s argument / rant about why the experiment was a failure.  The recruiting of Folau was a larger question than mere money, however – it had more to do with Sydney and its parochialism.  In order for the Giants to succeed in Western Sydney, the AFL needed a local, well known hero in order to inspire local youth to play the game as well as drawcard and talking point. They didn’t need a Gary Ablett Jr, they needed an instant Kieren Jack.  That’s because the area is a highly parochial region that sticks by its locals and doesn’t really get as far behind outsiders who move in.  Jack may have worked on this level, due to his league heritage. However, as much as I would love the Giants to have bought Jack, I would also be devastated as he plays such a crucial role for the Swans – he is still one of my very favourite players of the game.  Besides, his style of game isn’t necessarily as crowd pleasing by itself than an Ablett or Buddy Franklin and his game flourishes because he is a vital cog in the Sydney machine.  Folau could have had that ability to be a crowd pleaser, due to his physically imposing presence on the field. He also was, when on song, a better kicker of set shots at goal than Buddy.    Folau was also a good target because Melburnians already knew Folau from his adventures for the Storm, which included spectacular AFL style marks.

The experiment was not, as Baum and other Victorians have asserted, a disaster.  Cordy’s view that the publicity gained by Folau was worth the money holds more water. What the AFL gained with Folau was a foothold in the football conversation in western Sydney.  As successful on the field as the Swans have been, they remain a peripheral team for most of the west.  Suddenly, there were the Giants, featuring on TVs and radios with people talking about them, talking about Folau.  Whenever there were public appearances, there were kids and parents, seeing Folau and the others.  Most kids and many staff at my school only knowing that GWS even existed due to the playing of Folau.  The aftermath of his departure will be interesting – but if for no other reason, the name and brand are out there in the community.   It’s still early days. In any case, Folau being at the club had, I suspect, minimal impact on actual crowd numbers through the year, which were fairly meagre.   If Sydney as a city is true to form, it wouldn’t be one player that will bring them to games. It will be once the Giants start winning more games.

What has been clear throughout the year is that there are many inside and outside AFL who want to see the Giants fail as a concept. There are fans of poorly performing Melbourne clubs who are jealous of the draft picks and money being spent in an area they see as a wasteland (I have heard so many disparaging references made in the last year to Blacktown made by people who have never been there – this is despite the fact the Giants play in Homebush and train in Rooty Hill). There are, surprisingly, Swans fans jealous of the money spent on the fostering of football in the west (we never got that when the Swans came up, they cry).  There are also those rugby league fans and writers who crow about the losses of the Giants and the poor performances of Folau – most notoriously, Roy Masters, whose loathing of AFL and the Giants have no depths – even to the extent of him declaring Breakfast Points and Homebush Bay are inner city suburbs.  Masters and others, including Matthew Johns,  claim the AFL are out to “destroy” rugby league with the Giants, which is as ludicrous as stating that when Carlton started selling VB in Sydney pubs, they were going to destroy Tooheys.  The bizarre propaganda that I have seen in the year is part of what appears to be the modern media’s self appointed role to tell people what to think, this time in sport.

That is why league’s cheerleaders like the Telegraph’s Phil Rothfield have belted the AFL, talking of the “war” that the NRL are now winning.   It’s just silly that the main anti GWS paper (which the exception of Cordy) is the Daily Telegraph, because it is in the same stable of the AFL centric Melbourne Herald Sun.  All confected, all pandering to how they want to shape audience reactions.  Roy Masters must be dancing around, waiting to construct another poorly written hatchet job on the AFL.  As ever, both Rothfield and Masters could take some notes from the best league writer at either Sydney paper, Brad Walter, whose piece frames the decision in the context of both games and cultures – with well chosen quotations from representatives of both codes.  One of the best insights from the Walter article is that “Fairfax was told that Folau did not want to stand in the way of good young players coming through the ranks at GWS”, which if true, supports a view that Folau is a decent young man who made a choice based on an honest self appraisal, which will result in him being happy, but perhaps less financially wealthy.

This is the central picture that seems to emerge about Folau, that he is a quiet, unassuming man who wants to do his best and be at his best in whatever he does. That, ultimately, seems to also provide a clue as to why he didn’t work in AFL. He ultimately didn’t have the passion and love for the game.  If he did, he could have worked harder at getting up to speed with the tactics and manoeuvres, as figures like Pyke and Karmichael Hunt is beginning to achieve. He could have been more assertive with insisting on being a ruckman and sticking at it. He was, after all, potentially a major star. This is why also why I personally, as a passionate believer in the Giants experiment, that he needed to go back to league. It wasn’t good for him as a person or for the club to have a player who clearly didn’t have the passion and nous.  It wouldn’t have been good for Folau’s pride that Andrew “Sauce” Phillips, the young Tasmanian backup ruckman for the Giants was developing faster than Folau.

It is also emerging that Folau seems more comfortable with the rugby league star player culture than the developing Giants culture.  It is not surprising that Folau went on holidays to the US with Eels stars Jarryd Hayne – he shares a Minto background with Hayne. He had little in common with his mostly teenage Giants teammates.   It would also be hard for a former superstar player like Folau to be just a cog at a large conglomeration that is an AFL team, where little contributions are necessary throughout.  He seems to someone more at ease with being a star player capable of brilliant moments that win games – hence the possibility of a return to that culture at the Parramatta Eels.

Few rugby league club cultures seem to encourage individualism and star building than Parramatta. With the exceptions of Luke Burt, Nathan Cayless, the Hindmarsh brothers and a few others, Parramatta is less a club of hard working grafters than a team of unknowns as well as a group of “stars” recruited and lionised by the club.  These players are feted by the media and people of Parramatta, in and outside the leagues club. Many of these stars, like Chris Sandow and Hayne himself, are often more remembered for their lack of consistency as they are for their positive contributions. They don’t seem to have the same gritty team ethos as a Manly, Canterbury, South Sydney or St. George under Wayne Bennett, where the individual is less important than the team unit.  This was evident especially with the removal of Daniel Anderson as coach – a fine coach who was unfairly treated due to the lack of effort from a group of underperforming stars. The consequent failure of Stephen Kearney at the club seem to underline this problem.

Ricky Stuart, who as Cronulla and NSW coach appeared to be as good as talking the talk as he was as a player, now seems to be continuing to accept this star ethos, paying complete focus on recruiting stars like Sonny Bill Williams or Folau, even to the startling extent of attending Hillsong church services in order to capture Folau.  I hope for the sake of Parramatta’s long suffering supporters (which included me before Anderson’s removal), Folau makes a positive difference to the team.  Certainly, he will arrive with greater endurance than he had before the sport science people at GWS worked on his body, reducing his bulk and improving his stamina.  Clubs don’t win premierships – usually – on the back of one consistently performing star, however. I hope for his sake Israel Folau doesn’t get to feel as frustrated with the Hayne Tangara at Parramatta as he would have been playing a game he didn’t quite get.