The NSW Waratahs are banking on Israel Folau’s attacking verve to revive their flagging Super Rugby season in Saturday night’s crunch match against the Bulls.
After opening 2014 with stylish back-to-back bonus-point wins to lead the competition, the Waratahs have fallen in a big hole in Folau’s absence with a throat injury.
Folau bagged eight tries in four games, but the Tahs have managed to cross for only three in three matches without their dazzling Wallabies fullback.
The Australian Rugby Union controversially pulled Folau from last week’s clash with the Western Force after he’d been cleared to play by the Waratahs doctor, prompting an angry response from the dual international.
The Waratahs created countless tryscoring opportunities against the Force but sorely missed Folau’s finishing in a 28-16 defeat that leaves the pre-season title favourites clinging to their place in the top six.
“With Israel back in the line-up, you know if you give him five opportunities, he’ll finish two or three of those,” Waratahs attack coach Daryl Gibson said on Thursday.
Fellow backline star Adam Ashley-Cooper says there’s no hiding the fact the Waratahs are a for more formidable outfit with Folau on deck.
“So to have him back is a real bonus,” Ashley-Cooper said.
“He’s a pretty important player. He does score a lot of tries and create a lot of opportunities for the team.
“We’ve got to learn to play without Izzy but, luckily for us, we’ve got him this week and hopefully he makes a real difference”
Playing at home also makes a big difference, with the Waratahs unbeaten this campaign in Sydney.
After three straight games on the road, for two losses and one win, the Waratahs know the importance of transforming Allianz Stadium into a fortress in the run to the playoffs.
“The statistics show that you’ve got to win at home to make the finals,” Ashley-Cooper said.
“Off the back of a disappointing loss last week, this game is more important than ever.
“And obviously the next three weeks coming up, leading into our bye, is a really critical block in our season”
Folau’s return to fullback, at the expense of Jono Lance, is the only change to the Waratahs’ starting side.
Midfield playmaker Kurtley Beale has battled a sore back this week, but the Waratahs insist he will play.