As reality nears, Giants drawcard Folau puts on his bravest face

The Israel Folau cheer squad has allowed realism to overtake the jingoism that accompanied the early stages of his Australian football career but the bosses and coaches at Greater Western Sydney continue to shake their heads at his bravery.

No coach at the Giants, from Kevin Sheedy down, will predict whether the highly decorated and highly paid young footballer will succeed in the AFL, but all who watched the 22-year-old endure his 2011 baby steps insist he ploughed on through not only self-doubt but also some dreadful abuse from the sidelines.

''I'd like to see someone whack him,'' Sheedy said of the prospect of Folau's first few home-and-away games, which should be marked by his debut against the Swans on March 2. ''I'd like to see his reaction because he's a big bloke and he's not always smiling.''

But Folau did flash his popular smile when asked about the sledging he put up with from resentful rugby league fans and AFL cynics last season. ''You can hear it a lot better when there aren't many people at games,'' he said.

''I'm looking forward to the on-field stuff this year. I know it's going to come from the opposition and I quite enjoy it when an opponent gets in my ear. It sort of fires me up and sometimes I need that to get going.

''When I first came over from rugby league I knew I was going to cop it and there was a time there when I had a bit of doubt. I just thought, 'I don't know whether I can do this or not'.

''It was all building up inside me and I only spoke to my parents and they kept saying, 'Hang in there, it's going to take time'. But now I understand the game a bit better and I set myself little goals, so I hope I cop a bit. I'm looking forward to it.''

Folau, who has shed eight kilograms over the past year and says he does not want to lose any more weight, described his first AFL pre-season as ''tough''.

''There has been a lot of running, which I'm not used to,'' he said, ''and a lot of meetings as we get closer. A lot more meetings than in league. I've told the boys I'm not too good at meetings. I'm better out there having a kick.''

Folau's estimated $4 million four-year deal with the AFL and GWS no longer sticks out as much after the high-profile signing of Tom Scully, but he remains one-out from the team geographically, having bought a house for himself and his parents in Kellyville, while his fellow Giants all live in the relatively lavish gated community of Breakfast Point.

He has made a great new friend, however, in former Blue Setanta O'hAilpin - the pair have become increasingly inseparable in and away from the club over the summer - and he is no longer carrying alone the load as the face of the AFL's 18th club as it struggles for a piece of Australian sport's toughest market.

He agreed the upsides had been many compared with this time last year, when an ankle injury more than halved his pre-season.

''The club spoke to me about what was going to happen when I came to the club,'' Folau said. ''About the focus on me in the early part, but sharing the load around has been good now that Tom Scully and all these other big names have come up.''

Back when Folau played with Melbourne Storm and shared training facilities with Carlton, O'hAilpin frequently caught his eye on the track. ''I had no idea then that he was Irish,'' Folau said, ''or that he had a Fijian background. But I used to like watching the way he went about his training and he's become a good friend.''

Standing deep in the GWS forward-line with the strong-bodied O'hAilpin, the experienced Chad Cornes and teenage sensation Jeremy Cameron will remove further pressure from Folau, who was famously switched in May from the backline to attack by assistant coach Mark Williams. Many claim ownership of the decision that turned Folau's season around, but insiders agree list manager Stephen Silvagni first suggested it.

Folau has never returned for any significant period to defence and finished the 2011 North Eastern League competition with 31 goals. But it was not so much the scoring tally, he insisted this week, but a particular game in June in which he happened to kick five goals where his self-belief returned.

''That's the game when I thought, 'I think can do this','' Folau said. ''I started to understand my role. It wasn't only kicking goals but I set myself little things like putting pressure on and causing a turnover and I was really pleased with that.''

Sheedy confirmed that converting Folau from rugby league to Australian football had proved the biggest challenge of his coaching career.

''It's a mountain of a challenge,'' the Giants senior coach said. ''He [Folau] is not a bad kick and I've watched his decision making behind goals, and that's where he just has to keep playing - to know when to move across and when to go in and to go out.''

Folau admitted he struggled at times with the four-time premiership coach in terms of his teaching style. ''With Choco [Williams], he's probably more hands on, and with Sheeds, he uses his past to make comparisons and talk about players he's worked with to try and get his point across.

''A lot of guys he talks about I've never heard of. With me he mentions Michael Long or James Hird a bit and I've heard of them but I don't really know how they played.'' Sheedy responded later: ''It's up to him to find a tape and watch them to find out.'' (Last year, when one of the AFL's most famous coaches, David Parkin, reported Folau was unhappy and on the verge of giving the game away, Folau was heard asking GWS colleagues who David Parkin was.)

Karmichael Hunt warned Folau early in his transition that the pace of the game would challenge him - as it had Hunt - as will the highly skilled nature of the code.

Watching Folau train as he nears his AFL debut, all football observers agree his endurance and his struggle to read the play will test him most.

''That's exactly the hardest thing,'' Folau agreed. ''Running to the right spot and knowing when to run.''

There is genuine doubt whether GWS will win a game in their debut season or whether Folau will fire a shot. The Giants football bosses believe it will be two years before Folau's football destiny is clear.

But Sheedy said: ''I've got to play him. He's got to learn, so we've just got to keep playing him. He's going to make it or he isn't, but you have to ask the question: How brave is that kid?''

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