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'It's been awesome': Ex-Wallabies star Israel Folau primed for Tonga debut

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

Controversial former Wallabies star Israel Folau is primed to make his long-awaited return to test rugby when Tonga open their Pacific Nations Cup campaign this weekend.

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One of many former international stars to be included in the ‘Ikale Tahi squad for the upcoming tournament in Fiji, Folau is joined in the Tonga set-up by former All Blacks trio Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau and Augustine Pulu.

All four players are available to play for Tonga under World Rugby’s new eligibility laws, which allows test-capped players to represent a second country that they are eligible for via birthright following a three-year international stand down period.

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That has paved the way for Folau to make his highly-anticipated return to the test arena against Fiji in Suva this Saturday, a prospect the 33-year-old outside back said he is eagerly anticipating.

“It’s been awesome to be in camp with the ‘Ikale Tahi,” Folau told the Tonga Rugby Union social media channels earlier this week.

“For me, to come back to the team, with the opportunity to connect with the boys, back with the culture, and also a big part of that is our faith in God.

“It’s been a great week so far, and we’re looking forward to spending time with the boys over the next five weeks.”

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Folau’s return to the international fold has been a long time coming given it has been four years since he last played internationally, as he won the last of his 73 caps for Australia against England in November 2018.

Since then, Folau has been the subject of one of the highest-profile and most-documented sackings in the sport’s history when he was fired by Rugby Australia [RA] for making anti-gay social media posts in 2019.

Folau and RA reached an out-of-court settlement after the triple-code star sued his former employers for A$14m in what was the beginning of a long road back to the test arena.

Formerly an NRL star who also tried his hand in the AFL, Folau followed his dismissal from RA by returning to rugby league, where he turned out for the France-based Catalans Dragons in the Super League two years ago.

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A season in Europe’s premier rugby league competition was followed by a brief stint in the third tier of Queensland rugby league, where he played for the Southport Tigers before signing with the Shining Arcs in Japan Rugby League One.

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Despite a difficult campaign for the Shining Arcs, in which they finished 10th in League One’s top division and were relegated into division two after losing a playoff series against the Mitsubishi Dynaboars last month, Folau starred upon his rugby union return.

Scoring 10 tries in 12 matches, Folau’s prolific strike rate was reminiscent of his time in Super Rugby, where he remains the competition’s all-time top try-scorer.

That kind of form made it an easy decision for ‘Ikale Tahi head coach Toutai Kefu to call Folau into the Tongan national squad for the Pacific Nations Cup, which will be followed by a World Cup qualifier against either Hong Kong or South Korea next month.

“He’s fitted into the group seamlessly, he’s just one of the boys. He’s a mature young man who goes about his business,” Kefu told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“No-one’s really talked about [the past], he’s just looking forward and trying to be himself and fit in, which he’s doing seamlessly.

“The boys love him and, no matter who you are, this mob will bring you down to earth very quickly. There’s a lot of banter and laughter and that just builds our connection.”

Kefu will reveal his first Tonga squad under World Rugby’s new eligibility laws on Thursday, when he is expected to name Folau on the wing in an outside back trio that should also feature Piutau at fullback.

The new-look powerhouse Tongan outfit will then take on Fiji at ANZ National Stadium at 3:30pm local time on Saturday before they take on Samoa and Australia A at Churchill Park in Lautoka over the following fortnight.

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