Matt Cassidy investigates the notion that Israel Folau trumps all when it comes to being a fullback in professional rugby.
The Australian sports media went into a frenzy just over a week ago when Wallaby star, Israel Folau, was spotted having coffee with the NRL’s head of football, Todd Greenberg. It would be an enormous blow to the ARU if Folau decided to switch back to the code that made him famous as he is a key component of Australia’s World Cup plans and a fine marketing tool to boot.
However, it was the statement of ‘Union’s best fullback looks set for League switch,’ that preceded the breaking news which garnered my attention. Is Israel Folau the best fullback in the world?
8. Stuart Hogg, Glasgow Warriors & Scotland
The Glasgow number 15 is seen to be the great hope for Scottish rugby as it struggles through a period of darkness. Hogg, who is a distant relative to the late George Best, loves running with ball in hand even when sometimes it would not be advisable to do so.
The 22-year-old jinks and jives and brings a spark to an otherwise dull and unimaginative Scottish backline. His explosive pace as seen in his intercept try against Italy in the 2013 Six Nations, is arguably Hogg’s most potent weapon. Hogg has a siege gun right boot, an asset to a team which is as regularly under the cosh as Scotland, gaining important field position and he is able to slot a goal between the posts if needed.
7. Willie Le Roux , Cheetahs & South Africa
Playing for the Free State Cheetahs, Le Roux has blistering speed like the wild cat. Despite only having 15 caps, he has sense of adventure which is matched by no other Springbok and when the opportunity to attack arises you can guarantee Le Roux will not be kicking away possession.
He is one of the most dangerous broken field runners in the game; a prime example of this was the test against the Wallabies in Brisbane last year when Le Roux ripped the Aussie defence to shreds. The Springbok, who is equally at home playing on the wing, is South Africa’s jack in the box that could provide that moment of magic which will win them test matches in the upcoming Rugby Championship.
6. Leigh Halfpenny, Toulon & Wales
The Gorseinon man has come a long way since he was told his services were not required by the Ospreys at the end of the 2007 season. Halfpenny’s strongest skill is his relentless consistency. Standing at 5ft10, he is considered the midget of the Welsh backline but is undoubtedly one of Warren Gatland’s most important players.
Apart from doing the normal duties of a fullback to a high standard, his outstanding place kicking stats make him almost impossible to leave out of selection. His performances on the Lions Tour of 2013 earned him Man of the Series and a lucrative contract at Toulon. The Welsh fullback’s bravery in the tackle is almost to the point of stupidity where he has been knocked unconscious as he puts his head where others would not leave their feet.
5. Israel Dagg, Crusaders & New Zealand
Perhaps, to a few peoples’ shock or ire, I have placed Dagg down the pecking order due to a huge drop in form this season. The Crusader has a strong punt, able to take huge chunks of yardage for his side and this skill is put to good use, as according to statistics, New Zealand kick the ball more than any team.
Dagg attacks the line with gusto when he joins a back move and uses his wiry strength to get his hands free in the tackle unleashing the deadly Kiwi wingers. His breakthrough for the All Blacks came when he replaced the injured Mils Muliaina, at the World Cup in 2011 against Australia where Dagg’s fleet footedness set up the game’s only try. Dagg may not be in top form at the moment but everyone knows that it will not be long until the classy All Black will be firing on full cylinders again.
4. Rob Kearney, Leinster & Ireland
The Cooley man redefined the art of taking a high ball when he starred on the Lions Tour to South Africa in 2009. His reliance under the Garryowen gives confidence to any team he is in as they know it is more than likely they will win possession when the ball is sent up high.
Kearney has an educated left boot which Leinster and Ireland could make more use of when they are kicking for a lineout on the right side of the pitch. Kearney is not blessed with lightning speed but he is a sharp player who knows how to cut through a defensive line with excellent running angles and timing as seen for his try against England this year.
He has been arguably the best fullback in the Northern Hemisphere for the first part of the decade and his fine outings were rewarded in 2012 when he was voted ERC Player of the Year.
3. Mike Brown, Harlequins & England
2014 was the season that Mike Brown proved himself as a top quality operator at fullback and made the Red Rose’s number 15 jersey his own. The Quins’ man had a brilliant Six Nations where he turned in three Man of the Match showings which led to him being voted as Player of the Tournament. Brown is strong under the high ball, tough in the tackle and like the rest of the fullbacks on this list has strong kicking skills.
But it is Brown’s attacking capabilities where he shows his true worth. He carries the ball hard into contact, always seemingly beating the first tackle which creates a platform for his team to get on the front foot.
His attacking skill was evident in the Six Nations when he set up numerous scores for teammates and plundered four tries of his own. Known as “Mr. Angry”, Brown is an aggressive player which means he can be wound up by opposing players but when he harnesses it correctly, the results are always positive for his team.
2. Ben Smith, Highlanders & New Zealand
If you are a keen observer of Super Rugby or the All Blacks then you will know just how good Ben Smith is. Smith is your typical Kiwi rugby player; super intelligent and efficient. He is equally superb at wing or centre but it is in the number 15 shirt where Smith really shows his class.
His defence is rock solid; be it making a one on one tackle or stepping out of the line to stop the opposition from utilising an overlap. If his defence is good, Smith’s is even better with ball in hand. He is able to identify space and attacking opportunities quickly and will exploit the chance by using his speed and guile to ghost through a gap or using his excellent distribution to free a teammate. He was named Super Rugby Player of the Year for 2013. A phenomenal achievement considering the Highlanders finished second bottom.
1.Israel Folau, NSW Waratahs & Australia
It was a big and bold statement from the Aussie media but I would agree that Israel Folau is the world’s best fullback at present. Blessed with a physique that most could only dream of, Folau is the modern day athletic rugby player.
He burst onto the rugby stage when he scored two tries in the first Lions Test in Brisbane, leaving Jonny Sexton clutching at thin air as he exploded past the Irish flyhalf. Folau has a long ranging stride which allows him to glide past opposition defences but his eye for a gap is almost unrivalled.
He has an incredible try scoring record where he equalled the most tries for a Wallaby in one season last year and he has continued that form into this year as he crossed the whitewash eight times in the first four games before injury slowed his try express.
A former AFL player, Folau has an enormous leap and he stole the ‘King of the Skies’ crown off Rob Kearney in Dublin last November when he produced one of the finest displays ever seen under a high ball. A drawback of his game is his lack of punting ability. But when you are as good as the Waratah fullback with ball in hand, you do not need to kick. If he is to move back to Rugby League, then not only will Australia have lost a gem, but the game of Union will have lost a superstar.
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena.