Far from being a liability, the Wallabies still view superstar fullback Israel Folau as highly as they did when he was identified as the key to unlocking their Rugby World Cup hopes at the start of the tournament.
It hasn’t panned out exactly how the dual international had planned – with a quiet tournament in which he has gone tryless through four games, compounded by an ankle injury that has plagued him for three weeks.
By his standards, Folau is in a barren run when it comes to crossing the tryline – having notched just one five-pointer in his past 11 Tests, comfortably the worst trot of his international career.
On form, Kurtley Beale is mounting a very serious case for inclusion ahead of the one-time AFL and NRL star.
But coach Michael Cheika is a long admirer of Folau and helped secure his signature with rugby union when a proposed return to rugby league with Parramatta fell through after protracted talks with the NRL.
Under Cheika’s watch, Folau blitzed Super Rugby and spearheaded the NSW Waratahs’ maiden title win in 2014, while also becoming the first player to win back-to-back John Eales Medals as the best Australian rugby union player.
“I never doubt that bloke – never,” Cheika said.
Plenty have, however, with a New Zealand newspaper columnist describing the dynamic ball-runner as a “borderline liability” after Folau left the field with 20 minutes to play in the semi-final victory over Argentina as fatigue began to take its toll on his ankle.
It has been argued that Beale, who has been impressive in his stints off the bench and played a starring role in the 65-3 rout of Uruguay in the pool games, would serve Australia better if he was used from the opening whistle.
But barring a training catastrophe this week, that will not be happening and Folau will retain his place in the starting line-up.
“Has he been in top form? I think before he got his injury, he was in good form, he was carrying the ball really well,” Cheika argued.
“The injury bothered him a bit, he missed a game and then played (Argentina) with that injury but on the improve.
“He felt good enough to be able to do his job and I think he’s only going to get better after that.”