British & Irish Lions
Gatland expects Folau to feature
April 30, 2013
British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has been impressed by Israel Folau's form this year © Getty Images
Speaking on a conference call with journalists shortly after unveiling his 37-man touring squad on Tuesday, Gatland said the code-hopping fullback is improving each week and highlighted his aerial skills as a major weapon for the Wallabies.
But Gatland suspects politics may also be a major factor, suggesting the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) will use his selection in the prestigious series as the carrot to convince the 24-year-old to make a long-term commitment to the Wallabies.
Folau has been a revelation for the Waratahs after switching from the Australian Football League this season but comes off contract at the end of November and has been strongly linked with a move back to the National Rugby League in 2014.
"Obviously we know what a physical talent he is having played for the Melbourne Storm [and Brisbane Broncos] and then going to the AFL and now rugby," Gatland said of the former Queensland and Kangaroos superstar. "He's improving from week to week, he's scoring tries and creating tries and is fantastic in the air and I expect that Australia will use him. And I tend to think that they'll use him as a kicking option to receive the ball in the air, which he was used to great effect for the Melbourne Storm for cross-kicks as well.
"So he's definitely a player that we can keep an eye on and we're expecting him to be named in the squad. I presume from a political and a commercial point of view he's a player that Australia want to encourage to stay in the game and not to go back to league as well. I think he's good for the game, someone of that profile, and hopefully he stays in union."
The incumbent Wales coach is also expecting to see maligned fly-half Quade Cooper and Brumbies veteran George Smith, who is on loan from Japanese club Suntory and not contracted with the ARU, in Wallabies gold come June-July.
"I hope Robbie [Deans] leaves [Cooper] out, I've been really impressed with him," Gatland said. "I've watched him pretty closely in the last few weeks and I thought he's been playing really well for the Reds, I know they've been defending him at fullback but I thought he was pretty physical last week in terms of his defence. His goal kicking's been good and he's an absolute quality player. For us and for the game globally, you want to play against the best players and I think he's one of the best players, but that's Robbie's call and if he's selected, great."
He added of Smith, who played in the historic 2-1 series victory over the Lions in 2001: "I think he'll be part of the squad. You watch George and you can just see from his experience he doesn't make mistakes and he can play six, seven or eight. He's been one of the standout players for the Brumbies and we expect him to line-up against us."
Gatland said he is still "miles away" from picking his starting team for the first Test in Brisbane on June 22 and stressed getting the best players from four nations to gel will be his greatest challenge.
Lions coach reveals that the Toulon fly-half will be on standby for the tour of Australia
But the Kiwi-born mentor is confident his side can ultimately prevail and promised to employ an attacking game plan throughout the 10-match tour.
The Lions play the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1 and will play all five Australian Super Rugby provinces and a Country outfit as well as three Tests against the Wallabies in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.
The Wallabies will name an initial squad of 25 players on May 19, with a further six to be added on June 9.