Why Folau saga makes Saracens success story Skelton more valuable than ever before
The rugby world has become fit to bursting point with the Israel Folau saga over the last few months. Our timelines have been oversaturated by the now ex-Wallaby fullback’s lamentable barrage against the LGBT community and the processes that led to his recent dismissal. While it seems that this saga is unfortunately far from over, the on-field issue of a Folau-sized hole is in need of addressing for the Wallabies and the man who could serve as the 203cm, 140kg plug to this particular drain of talent.
Hold as much disdain towards the man as you like, there is no denying that Israel Folau was (and may continue to be) one of the best in the world at breaking clean through defensive lines. His subtle, yet devastatingly effective, fend and envious stride length makes the former Rugby League and Aussie Rules star one of the best fullbacks in the business. Equally, Folau’s often-ludicrous ability to rise through the air like a Chinese lantern laced with gunpowder has made for terrific reliability under the high ball, a safety buffer head coach Michael Cheika must now do without.
Cheika is sure to miss these aerial qualities at the World Cup later this year, standing as a facet of the game Northern Hemisphere giants Ireland and England place so much stock in. Furthermore, Cheika must deal with the equally as unenviable task of making up for Folau’s offensive capacities.
In the backline alone he will have to decide whether to rebalance his playmaker/strike runner balance to compensate for life post-Folau. There are multiple possibilities for Australia, such as shifting playmaking inside centre Kurtley Beale to fullback, incorporating both heavy-hitting centres Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kirundrani in the midfield or simply promoting one of Dane Haylett Petty or Reece Hodge to Folau’s vacant jersey and hoping the difference in quality passable. From courtroom to changing room, Folau has been a source of ample disruption for the Wallabies.
However, there is another avenue yet to be explored by Cheika. One that would require a rule change similar to the one that saw Toulon’s Matt Giteau made available for the 2015 World Cup four years ago, popularly dubbed ‘Giteau’s law’. This change in protocol permitted players that had both held a professional contract with Australian rugby for at least seven years and were in possession of 60 or more Wallaby caps available for selection, despite plying their trade elsewhere.
This policy still stands today, meaning that, amongst others, in-form Saracens lock Will Skelton is not available for selection. In career-best form and boasting the impressive accolade of one of Saracens’ most influential players this season, the 18-times-capped Wallaby lock has slimmed down and shaped up for the reigning Premiership and European Champions.
Even Leinster, a side that boasted nine of Ireland’s first choice team and eleven further internationals, were incapable of withstanding Skelton’s physical dominance. The giant Australian's overpowering of British and Irish Lions forwards verged on comical at times in the European final in Newcastle a fortnight ago, swatting aside would-be defenders and bundling opposing carriers backwards in the fashion of a father playing with his ten-year-old son.
This colossus of a second row has also been scoring tries from thirty metres out for Saracens, engineering his own line breaks straight through the belly of his oppositions’ defences. Aside from assigning two (maybe even three) of your most physical forwards to the task of containing him, there is no way of truly neutralising the rampaging Skelton. From a repeat-offending underachiever with untapped potential to becoming the Thanos of rugby (he truly is inevitable), Skelton would be a man Australia could utilise to great effect in filling the Folau-shaped void going forward.
Any team hoping to do themselves justice in the rigours of a World Cup campaign need game breakers, and the more the better. While Cheika can rely on Kerevi and Kirundrani to truck it up in the midfield and potentially burst free of defenders’ clutches, Australia are going to need something more. Skelton is that something more.
The Wallabies’ desperate need for someone of Skelton’s capacity has been painfully obvious over the last three years and the pressure the likes of Wales, Ireland and England are imposing on the once all-dominant Southern Hemisphere has set up what is expected to be the most closely contested World Cup to date. However he has to swing it, Cheika needs to move heaven and earth to get Skelton to Japan this summer.