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Folau’s aerial antics lift Waratahs to win over Crusaders

March 25, 2019
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The Waratahs' Israel Folau, right, tries to go around Crusaders' Jack Goodhue during their Super Rugby game in Sydney, Australia, Saturday, March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
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The Waratahs' Israel Folau, right, tries to go around Crusaders' Jack Goodhue during their Super Rugby game in Sydney, Australia, Saturday, March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Wallabies fullback Israel Folau has soared to new heights on the list of Super Rugby’s best attacking players while simultaneously lifting the New South Wales Waratahs into a challenging position in this season’s competition.

Folau scored his 59th Super Rugby try during the Waratah’s 20-12 upset win over the Crusaders on Saturday, joining former All Blacks and Blues winger Doug Howlett atop the tournament’s all-time try-scoring list.

To become so prolific a try-scorer, moving ahead of players such as Joe Roff, Christian Cullen and Bryan Habana, Folau has successfully imported to rugby union the skills learned during career detours in rugby league and Australian Rules Football.

From rugby league he has imported his ability to arrive in perfect time to support a ball-carrying player. While not a great line-breaker himself, he has an unrivaled ability to run off the shoulder of a player who does break the line.

From Australian Rules, a game of prodigious kicking and skilled catching of a kicked ball, he has imported the aerial skills which are probably his greatest talent. His ability to win possession of a kicked football in the air is beyond peer not just in Super Rugby but in the game globally.

Folau demonstrated that in his performance on Saturday, first setting up a try for winger Cam Clark by reclaiming a high kick from Waratahs flyhalf Bernard Foley and unloading with defenders clustered around the position where the ball came down.

He then scored his record-breaking try by joining winger Alex Newsome in contesting a kick which drifted over the Crusaders’ goal line. Newsome was first to the ball but couldn’t control it. When he knocked it down Folau, with special anticipation, was waiting in exactly the right place to ground it for his try.

Folau believes his aerial skills have been under-used and hopes the Waratahs will be able to take better advantage of them in future.

“Of my 59 tries, I’ve probably been lucky to get maybe 10 of them off kicks,” he said. “So it’s something that I’d like to see a lot more because I’m obviously confident in my ability to try and get up and contest for the ball.”

Wet conditions made kicking an effective tactic and one Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson hopes his team can exploit more often.

“Like the champion player he is, when you ask him to pull out something special, he does,” Gibson said. “It’s probably the first time that we’ve actually played that tactic.

“We haven’t really been kicking him enough ball, nor been good enough in putting it in the right areas for him. The best way to get through (the Crusaders) is through the air and the best way to do that is to go to your go-to man.”

The result ended the Crusaders’ record 19-match winning streak and suggests New South Wales may be stronger than last year when they reached the semifinals.

But the Australian conference picture remains confused. The Queensland Reds beat the ACT Brumbies 36-14 on Sunday to leave only four points separating the Waratahs atop the conference and the Reds in fourth place.

The Reds win, with a bonus point for scoring five tries against two, capped a round of upsets in Super Rugby in which the Crusaders lost for the first time this season and the Chiefs won for the first time, shaking up the top and bottom of the table.

The Hamilton-based Chiefs, winless and bottom of the overall standings, upset the Bulls 56-20 at Pretoria.

The Crusaders’ loss meant the Hurricanes drew level with them on points at the top of the New Zealand conference. The Lions, the losing finalists the last three years, moved a point behind the Crusaders in the overall standings after beating the Sunwolves in Singapore.

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The Waratahs' Israel Folau, right, tries to go around Crusaders' Jack Goodhue during their Super Rugby game in Sydney, Australia, Saturday, March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)