Folau the man with a mission on and off the field

The imposing centre is a devout Mormon as well as one of Australia's most potent weapons. By Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

The day will come, for it is written in the book, when Israel Folau will take time out from knocking over defenders and start knocking on doors. The bad news for Australia's opponents in this World Cup and beyond is that he is not planning to take his sabbatical from rugby league any time soon.

The mighty Kangaroo centre is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – more often known as the Mormons – and as such is supposed to spend two years as a missionary.

"It's sort of expected, but there's nothing definite decided yet," says the 19-year-old giant who threatens to terrorise rivals for a decade or more unless his faith takes him elsewhere. "I was brought up in the religion, so I want to do the right thing. But at the moment it seems as though I might be doing more good for my faith by playing football."

Folau is indeed a compelling advert for his particular brand of muscular Christianity. Born to Tongan parents, who brought their form of adherence with them to Australia from the islands, he was brought up first in Minto on the outskirts of Sydney and then in Brisbane. It was there that he took up seriously the dominant local football code of rugby league, which everywhere in Australia now has a stronger Polynesian profile than ever before.

Folau typifies the natural advantages with which many island athletes start. He is 6ft 5ins and a lean 16st 3lbs, fast and flexible as well as huge. Small wonder that he soon began to stand out in Brisbane schoolboy league. When he was only 15, the Melbourne Storm's talent scout, who treats Queensland as his prime recruiting ground, described Folau, already playing against boys several years older than him, as the next Mal Meninga.

Given that Meninga – an equally imposing Torres Straight Islander – is Queensland royalty and arguably the most formidable centre Australia has ever produced, that comparison might seem a heavy cross to bear, but Folau shows no sign of buckling beneath its weight.

At 17, the Storm introduced him into the hard school of the National Rugby League and he immediately thrived. In his first full season, he was the clear choice as the competition's Rookie of the Year and last October, at the age of 18 years and 194 days, he became the youngest player ever to appear in a Test for Australia.

Not only did Folau play, he shone as brightly as any of his more experienced team-mates, scoring two tries in a 58-0 avalanche. "Things have gone pretty well for me over the last two years," he says with some understatement. "Sometimes I can't believe how much has happened. That's where my religion has helped so much. It keeps my feet on the ground and helps me to stay humble."

A less grounded individual could easily have got carried away by the rapidity of his success. His second season as a first-teamer in 2008 saw him reach a second Grand Final with Melbourne, although they could not repeat the previous year's victory, and he was firmly established as half of Australia's youngest ever centre partnership with his 21-year-old club colleague, Greg Inglis, by the time this World Cup kicked off. "It's the sort of thing you dream of as a boy – playing for your country in the World Cup on the biggest stage," he says.

That World Cup career began auspiciously with two tries in another demolition of New Zealand. If he was a little quieter in the thrashing of England last weekend, that was only because his side did so much damage down Inglis' side of the field. In fact, you could argue that it was England's concentration on cutting down Folau's options – "You've just got to get there in numbers," said his opposite centre, Keith Senior, before the match – that opened up so many opportunities for others.

He now faces the central issue of deciding which aspects of his life should take priority over the next few years. Another high-profile Mormon player, Krisnan Inu, an almost equally talented utility back who is in New Zealand's squad for this World Cup, has decided that he will not be taking two years out to proselytise for the cause before the usual cut-off point of his 25th birthday. His reasoning is that he is a better recruitment vehicle for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on the rugby league field than off it.

Israel Folau – known as Izzy or simply Big Man to his team-mates – might come to the same conclusion, but is not making any binding statement on the matter yet. It seems likely, however, that he will have told the Broncos that he plans to stick around for a while. At 19, he has, in theory, plenty of time to pursue both callings.

The sobering thought for potential opponents is that, on the doorstep with his persuasive powers or on the footy field with his equally persuasive skills, he remains a man on a mission.