Israel and Sonny Bill; A New Breed of Player

14 Nov

Standing 6″5 and weighing just shy of 16 stone, Israel Folau is the archetype of the modern rugby player. Big, strong and fast with skills to match, the man they call ‘Izzy’ is one of the most awesome sights in Rugby Union.

Yet the Wallaby and Waratah back only switched to Rugby Union less than a year ago, following two years playing Aussie Rules, and previous to that, four years playing Rugby League in the NRL.

Despite being still a tender 24, Folau has played four seasons in the NRL, during which he was capped by the Kangaroos at just 18 (the youngest player to be capped by Australia) and played in five State-of-Origin matches for Queensland.

And while his Aussie Rules career was not a success Folau did play several matches in the AFL, the highest level of the sport, before switching to Rugby Union.

In less than a year Folau has scored eight tries in 14 games for the Waratahs and eight in 12 for Australia. His performances in Super Rugby, The Lions Series, and the Rugby Championship have seen some hail him as the best full-back in Rugby Union, and also compare him to fellow code-switcher Sonny Bill Williams.

But while Folau’s ability to switch codes and still be a success may impress, particularly given the level of success he’s had, he’s not the first and won’t be the last sportsmen to do so. Here are just some of the few others that have participated at the highest level in multiple sports.

Sonny Bill Williams

The New Zealander rivals Folau in terms of the impact he’s had on both league and union, although as a member of the Bulldogs, Chiefs and the All Blacks, Williams has won more honours, including the NRL, Super 15, Rugby Championship and Rugby World Cup.

The only honour Sonny Bill Williams doesn’t have is a Rugby League World Cup, something which he hopes to rectify in the coming weeks.

Aside from league and union, Williams is an accomplished boxer with a 6-0 record, which included a recent defeat of Frans Botha, a man who previously fought Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.

Karmichael Hunt

Hunt, while not as well-known as Folau, blazed the trail which Folau followed, albeit in a different order. A former fullback in the NRL, Hunt debuted for the Brisbane Broncos at just 17 and went on represent the Kangaroos and Queensland.

He switched to Union in 2009 and played a season in France with Biarritz and scored the only try in the 2010 Heineken Cup final, which Biarritz lost 21-19 to Toulouse. In spite of such immediate success Hunt left rugby altogether to pursue a career in Aussie Rules.

In four years Hunt has made the transition to AFL regular, and has prompted some to describe him as Australia’s greatest all-round footballer.

Coincidentally Hunt’s brother-in-law, Scott Harding, played in the AFL before earning a scholarship to play American Football at the University of Hawaii, where he currently plays as a punter, punt returner and wide receiver, and has ambitions to play in the NFL.

Jeff Wilson

Wilson is a true great of the game of Rugby Union. Combining great speed and skill, he was one of the dominant wings of the 1990’s. He featured in one of the most fearsome back threes of all time, alongside Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu, and scored 44 tries in 60 tests for the All Blacks.

But Wilson was talented at multiple sports. He was a teen star in track as well as in cricket, and it was the latter which he returned to after retiring from professional rugby. After briefly playing for the Black Caps in the early 1990’s, Wilson was again called up to the national side in 2005 at the age of 31, and earned his fifth and sixth caps 12 years after he’d earned his first four.

Wilson cricket career was brief and insubstantial, yet he still holds the distinction of being a ‘Double All Black” and playing Cricket and Rugby Union for a tier one nation, a feat unmatched in the modern era.



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