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Analysis: Ireland take punishment from Israel Folau's freakish aerial game

Joe Schmidt’s side surprisingly targeted the Wallabies fullback with their first two restarts.

ISRAEL FOLAU CAUGHT the ball from kicks eight times against Ireland in Brisbane and even the one he didn’t manage to take cleanly led to a penalty.

That ‘error’ came in the second minute of the Wallabies’ victory, when Folau tore after one of many Kurtley Beale bombs and got into the air against Rob Kearney, forcing a knock-on from the Ireland fullback which Bundee Aki picked up in an offside position.

The most stunning of Folau’s aerial takes on Saturday came under the same source – a contestable Beale kick – and played a major role in the Wallabies building towards their crucial second try.

Folau

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It’s a sensational moment from the fullback, with Folau’s freakish physical ability to explode off the ground combining with his superb skill.

With no Irish player able to ‘escort’ Folau – in other words, look to impede his direct running line towards the ball – he has the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his skill.

Johnny Sexton is the closest Irish player to Jacob Stockdale, coming up from the backfield to compete, but any change of line from the out-half across Folau would probably have been penalised.

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The timing of Folau’s stride into the landing point of the ball is excellent, as he controls his pace and shows composure not to get there too early, all the while maintaining focus on the ball as he moves.

Having covered the first few metres with long strides, Folau chops his steps coming towards his jumping point, and then the final stride is slightly longer again.

That allows him to almost bounce onto his left leg and generate his explosive power through it as he gets his right leg up ahead of him, helping to generate more height and providing a useful bumper if there is going to be any contact up in the air.

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Stockdale has not been as successful with his own approach towards the ball and ends up slightly in front of it, meaning he can’t make a realistic attempt to field it, and he doesn’t provide the physical contest in the air that could potentially put Folau off.

Stockdale doesn’t have the same leaping power as Folau but Ireland’s review might ask whether he could have got off the ground earlier in order to ensure there is at least that distraction for Folau and a greater possibility of forcing an error.

Even at that, Folau’s take is sensational.

Just to be certain of a clean win, he opts for the overhead catch, extending his hands up in front of his eyeline and backing himself to gather it without the security of his upper body behind the ball, as would be the case with a more traditional catch.

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Folau does, of course, have a background in the NRL and Aussie Rules but it’s notable how few players are utilising the overhead catch as a skill in the game today.

Literally within a split second of landing, Folau transfers the ball from two hands into his right, freeing his left side to fend.

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He uses that left hand to swat away Conor Murray’s cover tackle attempt…

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… and offloads one-handed out of Sexton’s tackle to the supporting Samu Kerevi.

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Kerevi is tackled strongly by Kearney, but Will Genia follows up with a clever long box kick into Ireland’s 22, where Marike Koroibete tackles the retreating Stockdale and the Ireland wing is penalised for playing the ball after a ruck has formed over him.

The Wallabies opt to tap the penalty and eight phases later, Pocock smashes over for the try that secures their victory.

It’s a game-altering catch from Folau and the worrying thing for Ireland is that they knew it was coming and couldn’t do much to stop it.

“They placed him wide on the right-hand side and we can see it but you can’t usher three or four guys out there, you’ve got to defend what’s immediately in front of you,” said Ireland boss Joe Schmidt. “That’s the asset of having him there.”

Folau’s first catch from an Irish kick came surprisingly early in the game – after four seconds, to be exact – as Ireland sent Kearney to compete with him, while CJ Stander and Jordi Murphy followed up on either side of the fullback, hopeful of gathering in a spill.

Pen

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The mechanics from Folau are similar here.

He explodes up off his left leg…

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… uses his right leg to shield himself from Kearney, even adding an extra inch to his jumping height by pushing it down off the Ireland fullback…

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… and extends his hands up in front of his eyes again, getting a clear sighting of where the ball is going to arrive into them.

Well beaten, Kearney can’t resist wrapping Folau up while he’s still in the air and Ireland concede the penalty.

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It’s a damaging start to the game for Ireland and many onlookers wondered what they were thinking kicking to the best aerial player on the pitch.

“Look, we pride ourselves on the aerial battle,” said CJ Stander when asked what the reasoning was. “The first one didn’t go our way. We felt that he’s going to be there and it’s a place we can go and put pressure on that specific point.

“He’s going to get the ball, yes, but Rob is going to get up and we know we’ve got me and Jordi around the ball to get into it, so if it worked out a bit better, it would have been a different picture but it didn’t so it’s something we’re probably going to look at.”

Now, this might seem like lunacy from Ireland, but it’s worth remembering that something similar has worked for them before.

For example, when Ireland beat the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016, Ireland dropped restarts on opposition fullback Ben Smith, with Kearney winning one ahead of him – a real momentum changer – and very nearly regaining another.

Still, Folau is at another level even to someone as good as Smith and it was surprising to see Ireland go back at him with their second restart, which Folau won again.

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Realising that Folau was in such fine form in the air, Ireland did look to change their restart tactics for their third effort.

As we can see below, Joey Carbery is looking away to the right of the pitch as he readies himself to kick.

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However, Carbery mishits his drop-kick and it arcs infield towards Folau, not the Ireland out-half’s intended target further to the right.

Mishit

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We can see above that Kearney is not sent to chase the restart, underlining that this was simply a kick error rather than another deliberate attempt to go at Folau.

Ireland sent their 70th-minute restart after a Bernard Foley penalty deep to the right, where replacement Peter Samu caught it.

Ireland’s final restart of the game was taken by Folau, although they were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty in this instance.

Block

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Keep an eye on the chasing Robbie Henshaw [Ireland 13] in the clip above and note how Wallabies replacement hooker Tolu Latu [16] works across the pitch to impede his running line.

It’s deliberately done but Ireland are as effective with this kind of off-the-ball work around kicking as anyone, if a good deal more subtle perhaps.

Henshaw doesn’t get the opportunity to compete with Folau as a result, after Ireland draw him out of his central zone to deal with their restart.

The fact that he claimed four Irish restarts in this game, as well as his regular fielding in open play, was a surprise.

Folau’s combination of ludicrous athleticism, diligently-trained skill and confidence make him perhaps the greatest aerial player in rugby but Ireland still say they don’t believe he is unbeatable.

“He’s one of the best guys in the air I’ve ever seen,” said Stander. “He showed his class again last weekend but we back ourselves and we back the players to get up there. It’s another challenge we want to go at and see if we can get the right level.”

Given that Folau gets more height than anyone else, it will be fascinating to see how Ireland attempt to get to that level in the second Test. The Wallabies will be banking on their fullback to deliver a few more game-changing moments in the air.

Originally published at 11.07am. This article was updated again at 11.30pm to correct ‘Isreal’ to ‘Israel’ in the headline.

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Murray Kinsella

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