The bumps and bruises of a first game of Rugby League in ten years for Israel Folau have been cushioned by the warmth of the welcome he has received from supporters in the south of France.
The 30-year-old former NRL and Australian rugby union star made a try-scoring debut for his new club Catalans Dragons last week and coach Steve McNamara said Folau had “felt like a bus had hit him” the following day.
Intense media attention surrounded Folau’s arrival in Perpignan. But now the camera crews have left Stade Gilbert Brutus, the player told League Express (the first English publication he has spoken to since he signed on a one-year-deal for the Dragons) that it was worth all the pain.
“It was really important to get that first game under my belt and I enjoyed every minute of it,” said Folau, adding: “I felt pretty battered and bruised for a couple of days after it, but recovery and training’s been good this week and I can’t wait for my second match.”
Folau will feature in the squad travelling to Hull FC this Sunday following a weekend off owing to the postponement of the Dragons’ scheduled match at St Helens, who were on World Club Challenge duty.
The former Kangaroos and Wallabies centre could be in for a climate and culture shock, following an unseasonably warm spell in the south of France, with sunshine and temperatures into the mid-twenties Centigrade last week.
“The weather’s been great, we’re pretty lucky to get these conditions this time of year apparently,” said Folau.
“I’m just glad to be back in the training and playing environment and the people over here have been very welcoming. My wife and I are very grateful for the reception we’ve had.
“It’s an exciting time for us in a new country, trying to learn a new language, but we’re enjoying it so far. The players and staff have been great, very helpful and they’ve made our first couple of weeks over here very comfortable, especially now the bruises have worn off, and we are enjoying our time here in Perpignan.”
Coach McNamara is keeping an arm around his new recruit to help ease Folau into his return to Rugby League and the former England boss is pleased with his progress so far.
“He has fitted into the squad very well,” said McNamara, adding: “It’s quite clear that Israel offers a great deal to the side on the pitch, but off it too he has a great deal of experience in different codes, and that is invaluable, particularly to our younger players.”
McNamara has been juggling training schedules because of the stop-start nature of the season so far for his squad. He said: “It’s been a different start to the season for us, obviously having the game at Wakefield postponed through the weather and then the World Club Challenge coming between us and St Helens. But there’s nothing we can do about it, so we’ve made the most of it.
“We’ve had plenty of our players in reserve grade to keep them match-fresh and ready to play and we’ve tried some different things at training to challenge the players and keep them focused.
“I’m sure we’ll pick up the rearranged fixtures whenever we can, but we can only focus on what’s in front of us and that’s Hull FC (on Sunday). There has been some to-ing and fro-ing between the clubs and the RFL, but at the moment there are no dates set or suitable for either the St Helens or Wakefield games.
“We thought we had a great opportunity to play Tuesday or Wednesday this week, but it didn’t suit Wakefield, so we move on.
“Players want to play all of the time, but when you get a weekend off you’ve got to make the most of it and then make sure we’re ready to play next week.”
The Dragons are considering a venue-switch for their home game against Toronto Wolfpack on Saturday 27th June. Club officials believe the possibility of Sonny Bill Williams facing Israel Folau could prove attractive to rugby union supporters and are considering taking the game to 15-a-side strongholds Marseille or Toulon.