The 25-year-old says putting the jersey on for a Bledisloe Cup Test is a childhood dream fulfilled.
OPINION:Throughout the heady days of the Israel Folau saga, a handful of packages arrived at the front desk of Rugby Australia’s offices at Moore Park.
The packages contained Wallabies jumpers that several disgruntled fans felt compelled to send back because they were so angry about the way RA had treated Folau over his social media post about homosexuals, among others, going to hell.
“We can’t support you any longer,” said one note.
We wonder how those supporters have felt this week. Are they still angry? Do they want their jumpers back? Did they even watch the Wallabies’ record 47-26 win over the All Blacks in Perth last Saturday? Will they watch Michael Cheika’s men attempt the impossible on Saturday: a win at Eden Park that would see Australia drinking from the enormous Bledisloe Cup for the first time in 17 years?
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In the 120-year history of the Australian rugby team, few weeks have been as significant as this one.
When John O’Neill was running the game, he understood the health of the code depended mostly on the success of its national team.
Four years ago, when Cheika’s side stunned all concerned and reached the Rugby World Cup final against the All Blacks, there was cautious optimism about the road ahead.
Then the Wallabies were bullied on home soil by Eddie Jones’ England and it all unravelled from there.
Since then, Australian rugby has seen the Western Force get booted from the Super Rugby competition, the Wallabies splutter, including its worst year in history, and then the Folau melodrama.
Rugby will never die. There are too many people who love it, grew up with it, enjoy drinking cold cans of VB at Coogee Oval watching Randwick on crisp Saturday afternoons.
But the calamity of the last four years has seen supporters and sponsors on the fringes wriggle off the line.
“The biggest thing is the number of people who no longer care,” O’Neill said in this space only two years ago. “And when they stop caring, getting them back is incredibly hard. This is the most competitive football market in the world. Our competitors would now consider rugby as almost irrelevant.”
His comments are more valid now.
Those who are firmly in the Folau camp will say the way RA has run its highest paid player out of the game has done irreparable damage.
The Perth Bledisloe sold out in six days, with a record crowd for any sporting event at Optus Stadium in attendance. This, remember, in a city which had seen its Super Rugby team speared.
More than that, the Wallabies showed they are bigger than Folau. Maybe not bigger than Jesus, as John Lennon might say, but bigger than Izzy.
It has taken a few matches without him to adjust, but they no longer rely on him to save the day. For too long the Wallabies have seemed like 14 players in gold jumpers — plus Folau.
Against the All Blacks, they had outstanding contributors all over the park, led by inspirational captain Michael Hooper.
Apart from the rare sight of fans wearing Wallabies jumpers the day after the match in Perth, perhaps the most telling part of the All Blacks win was that it drowned out Folau’s appearance in the Federal Circuit Court in Melbourne a few days later.
It’s in stark contrast to the world rugby has been living in for the past few months as the Folau issue escalated.
Just how much attention did it get? According to RA, in a two-month period, there were no less than 60,000 media reports about Folau. The game doesn’t normally get that much coverage in a year.
No wonder Folau turned into a evangelical crusader as a platoon of right-wing commentators barked in his ear about religious freedoms and freedom of speech and what not.
The longer the debate went on, the more empowered Folau — and his father, Eni, who has long pulled all the strings in his son’s life — became.
Folau’s multi-million-dollar unfair dismissal case will go to trial in February next year, sparing Cheika and his team unwanted distractions during the World Cup in Japan.
Of course, one swallow does not a summer make. The Wallabies haven’t won at Eden Park in 33 years, in 18 attempts.
But the All Blacks are suddenly panicky, making sweeping changes to their side while Cheika has made just one forced change to the team that did the job in Perth.
I know: what’s going on? What bizarro world is this? Am I dreaming?
Sydney Morning Herald