"He’ll definitely go down in the history books as one of our greatest ever Wallabies. To transition to Rugby like he did, break all the records he has, and then win a third John Eales Medal shows just what type of athlete and person he is. He is so resilient and so driven. He is a special athlete and we are very blessed to have him."
On Thursday night, Israel Folau became the first ever player to win the John Eales Medal on three occasions. Sekope Kepu, one of Israel’s closest friends and teammates with both the Wallabies and Waratahs, tells us about the Israel Folau he knows.
In 2012 while we were in Europe on the Spring Tour, I had heard whispers that the Waratahs were looking at recruiting Israel Folau. Then, on the way home, I checked my emails at Dubai Airport and saw something had come through from (then Waratahs Coach) Michael Cheika, saying that Israel had signed and it was going to be announced.
Having watched him playing Rugby League and AFL on TV, I was really excited about the prospect of playing alongside him. I first met him in the hallway at the Waratahs not long after that, and I remember thinking what a big, tall, shredded guy he was. Our friendship clicked straight away as we began our first pre-season together.
Israel’s really relaxed outside of footy and he laughs a lot. He is definitely a really confident guy, but he can also be really shy at the same time. The Israel I know is always cracking jokes and doing silly handshakes, but he is also somebody who always has time for anyone and is always willing to say hi and have a chat, regardless of who you are.
He has a way of making everybody feel comfortable, when a lot of the time people are initially shy and are overwhelmed to be near him.
Speaking to kids after games, always pulling that big smile for photos, and chatting to people young and old regardless of the time and the situation; that’s Izzy. He always has time to sign a few autographs and to give back to all the fans. He is a really, really humble guy and all in all he is a guy who loves a good time and enjoys being himself around the boys.
Last year when we were on tour in France, I took Izzy with me when I caught up with a young Tongan mate who was in the Academy at the Club I played for when I lived there. This 20-year-old guy had moved to France straight from the islands, and I wanted to take him out and buy him some new clothes and shoes.
Israel came and helped pick out some things, and then as we went up to the register he pulled out his card and insisted on paying for it all. This young kid broke down and was just so overwhelmed to see somebody of such stature, that he really looked up to, doing something so selfless. This kid is still always talking about that day, and how chilled Izzy was, and asking me to say hi to him and to thank him again. That’s just the type of person Israel is; it wasn’t about the money, but the thought.
Our favourite Tongan saying to one another before a game is mali mali, which means just smile and enjoy everything, soak it in. When you smile at somebody that goes a long way and can brighten someone’s day, and Israel is always smiling.
Wycliff Palu and Tatafu Polota-Nau were the two guys who had really helped me settle into the Waratahs when I first came in, and they were the same guys who immediately helped him to feel at home when he switched to Rugby. Israel looks up to them both immensely, and there’s a group of us Islander guys at the Waratahs who are all really close mates. It’s the same again when we’re in camp with the Wallabies, and we spend a lot of time with guys like Allan Alaalatoa, Tevita Kuridrani, Scott Sio and Henry Speight.
We all feel comfortable around each other and you always hear the high-pitched laughter in the corner when we’re together. We will laugh whenever somebody mispronounces something, or when somebody walks past who looks like Tolu (Latu), with no neck and a square head.
We love playing games and mucking around like ten-year-old’s, and sometimes my missus asks if we’ve forgotten our actual age. It’s what keeps us young and laughter is good for you.
When Israel got the zigzag lines shaved in the side of his head it looked like the Bupa logo, so we called him Bupa for a while; he got rid of that style pretty quickly. He loves his hair, and even though I cut a lot of the boys’ hair I don’t touch his. I wouldn’t go near it, I don’t want to stuff it up because he would be genuinely devastated.
When I moved to France to play for Bordeaux it was really hard leaving these guys behind, and it really opened my eyes up about how good I had it back in Sydney. I would always message the boys back on WhatsApp to try and keep in the loop, I didn’t want to feel left out. It made me stop taking for granted the opportunity to play footy with these guys, and now it’s a case of embracing every day and every moment that we’re together because when footy is done who knows where our journeys will lead. That’s something I have learnt now that I am getting a little bit older, to really cherish those relationships.
Israel Folau has written about Maria, Japan & The Future exclusively for The Players' Voice; click here to read it.
Now that we’re all getting a bit older it’s the circle of life, and Izzy and I are helping with some of the young Islander guys who are coming through. We had (Brumbies hooker) Folau Fainga’a come in to the Wallabies squad last week for the first time, and I look at him and see myself in 2008 on my first tour. That’s what team sports are all about, and I think you can see from some of our recent Wallaby performances that the bond and chemistry we have is rubbing off on the field as well.
These friendships have definitely gone a long way in helping to keep Israel playing Rugby, and playing in Australia, although I’ve never been that worried about him returning to Rugby League. We have had a few discussions about it, and every time I see something pop up in the newspapers I have a chat with him and ask what’s going on, and how he’s feeling. I believe that he is really enjoying Rugby and the blessings that the game has given to him on and off the field, such as the travel and the relationships. I’m 99% sure he won’t be going back to Rugby League.
Faith & Family:
Our faith is a massive part of our lives, and Israel is a really spiritual guy. Whether we’re in camp with the Wallabies or the Waratahs, our pre-game ritual is to have a Friday night prayer connect group after Captain’s Run. That’s something we hold very closely to our hearts and believe in truly, especially as we both grew up in Christian families. Israel usually leads us in these prayers and also the ones we have before the game. He has also made sure that he invites the rest of the squad to be involved or to understand better where we are coming from, which has helped break down any barriers there which perhaps used to exist when I first came in. He is a true man of his faith.
When he sent that tweet last month about the same-sex marriage plebiscite, we knew that he was going to cop a lot of heat from people who disagreed with him. We made sure we got around him as much as we could, and made sure he knew we had his back.
He stands up for what he believes in, but he is so respectful about others who have different opinions.
A lot of people respected what he had to say, and how he said it, whether they actually agreed with it or not. He has taught me a lot about being bold and strong and standing up for what you believe in, and that’s his character and something that I really truly do respect and admire about him.
Israel is revered back in Tonga; the late Jonah Lomu was always number one, but I think Izzy is up there now! Last week, the Tongan Rugby League team were there and the country all got together and held huge parades. I actually think that if Izzy went there by himself it would be the same; he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. Rugby is the game in Tonga, and once the locals caught wind of his arrival he would need an escort out of the airport. Everybody in Tonga loves him because of his faith, as it is such a religious country and he is so proud of his beliefs, and they love the way he carries himself on and off the field.
His parents, and the people around him that help mentor him and keep him grounded, are really open and honest with him. Once he sets his mind to something, he sees it through. His heart is set in stone and he is driven to do the best he can for himself and for his family, and he stands up for what he thinks is right and what he believes in. That’s what I respect the most about him.
He is very close to his parents. In the Tongan community, you look after your olds before you get married and I think he has done a great job with that and will continue to do that, but he’s ready to jump off the cliff and get married himself to Maria. We’ve had a bit of a laugh about his feelings and whether he’s nervous or excited, but I think he can now plan ahead and has some certainty around when he is getting married and what the next couple of years look like.
I’ve been married for a few years now and we have had lots of conversations about marriage and family, and what it’s like. His situation is obviously challenging, with Maria living in New Zealand and playing professional netball, but thankfully enough they have made it work without him having to go and play for the Blues. Maria has been really good for him, she’s an athlete and knows what is required to be the best you can be, but she’s also sacrificed a lot for him too. You always see Big Izzy on the phone to her any time he has a break.
He is one of the greatest athletes I have ever played alongside and he knows his own body and his own mind so well. He’s been playing sport professionally since such a young age, and I become a fan of his at State of Origin time when they show that try he scored upside down; that’s one of my favourite sporting memories, even though he was playing for the Maroons!
He works so hard behind the scenes, and he is so diligent with his recovery. He has a massive sweet tooth, and the two of us love a red velvet cupcake together with our coffee, but he knows what he has to do afterwards to work it off. He does his work off the field and come game time you know he is switched on, every single time.
I haven’t ever had to play against him, and I’m glad because I would hate to be caught out defending him in the corner if he was running at me. He is strong, fast and elusive, and he reads the game exceptionally well. He is also really encouraging and always tells me to back my instincts, and that’s pretty special, so I really enjoy his support.
The rare game when he doesn’t score a try or make a few breaks, he gets so dirty on himself and he sets very high standards for himself. He is somebody who always rises to the occasion and the way he handles pressure, and the quiet confidence that he has, is unbelievable. I think that is why he has performed at such a high level for so long.
He’ll definitely go down in the history books as one of our greatest ever Wallabies. To transition to Rugby like he did, break all the records he has, and then win a third John Eales Medal shows just what type of athlete and person he is. He is so resilient and so driven. He is a special athlete and we are very blessed to have him.
"Israel, this is the reward for all of the hard work you’ve put in to your career, and for me the biggest thing that overpowers everything is that this is the reward for you being you. This encapsulates everything you put into the jersey, and everything you represent. It shows how much your teammates respect you, and the way you play."