Israel Folau has played three professional codes over the past eight years. Firstly Rugby League, then Australian Rules Football, now Rugby Union. In sporting terms, he is a freak.
He is in the prime of his physical life. At 193 cm and 103 kilograms, he is still only 25.
But how much has he relied on natural ability compared to his physical training? Learning and adapting to the demands of one sport is hard enough, but what about three in the space of four years?
Going from the crash and bash in the National Rugby League, to the all-round fitness and endurance in AFL, to the explosion required in Super Rugby, how did Folau train for each sport?
Firstly, Rugby League and Rugby Union aren’t all that different from a training perspective. David Boyle, who has coached professionally in both codes, and Tom Tombleson, who is the strength trainer for the New South Wales Waratah’s Super Rugby team, can give us some insights about how he went about his physical transformation.
Both codes require big focus on strength training and explosive exercises. Rugby League’s defensive lines are 20 metres compared to just 5 in Union. More distance covered equals more speed, more mass and a greater impact. This requires more focus on dealing with the contact that Rugby League brings – something Boyle focuses on in his current role at the Cronulla Sharks.
“A big feature in Rugby League is strength, size and body weight. There is more time for runners to build up speed – this means a greater collision and more force when coming into contact. Depending on what position players are, we tailor their training. For example, if they are interchange players, they can afford to be more bulked up. Eighty minute players, usually the backs, need to be able to last the whole game.”
Folau’s position in the centres in League made it easier for him to transition into the backs in Union, says Boyle, as the demands of these positions are fairly similar.
Moving into Union wouldn’t be that easy though. Tombleson has watched Folau transition his skills from the AFL and have to change his body shape, focusing on more bulk to help in contact. His strength and explosiveness is still important. In fact, the simple strength building exercises that have stood the test of time are used at the Waratahs.
“Each player will be individually assessed and get a specific training program. We generally focus on the simple power exercises that get most bang for their time. Normal free weight movements – jumps, pilometrics, Olympic weightlifting.”
He agrees Folau’s supreme athletic make-up has helped him succeed in a number of sports, but also the ability to lots of things very well, as opposed to one or two things better than anyone else.
Australian Rules Football is a completely different physical challenge.
The focus is on endurance, stamina, core strengthening and agility. Folau’s pr-season at GWS would have included shuttle runs, jogging, boxing circuits, swimming, cycling, core work and more running.
A good base of strength would also be required to win during contact. Folau would have had to change his body shape to one that had a layer of muscle and bulk to assist in high force contact, to one that needed to run at least 10 kilometres each 80 minutes in the AFL (all information taken from pre-season programs on the AFL’s coaching website).
His playing weight was only four kilograms lower than his current weight in Union, indicating he kept his size but was still able to progress in his fitness, stamina and endurance, as he played thirteen games in total for his AFL team.
Debate will rage once Folau retires whether he was the best cross-code athlete in Australia’s sporting history. That is not for us to decide. However, his ability to change his body shape, adapt his physical training requirements but still achieve success in three codes makes him one of the supreme athletes of today.
That’s our opinion though. Who do you think is the ultimate athlete today across any code?