Former NRL centre and AFL utility Israel Folau has announced he has signed a one-year deal with Super Rugby franchise New South Wales Waratahs.
After pulling the pin on his four-year, big-money deal with AFL expansion club Greater Wetern Sydney on November 1 after just two seasons, the former Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos star was hotly tipped to join the Parramatta Eels in a return to the NRL.
But after refusing Parramatta's formal offer, Folau has competed a football code trifecta in switching to rugby union, where he will play for the Waratahs in the 2013 Super Rugby season.
"Obviously today's a very exciting time for me to announce I've signed for the New South Wales Waratahs," Folau said at Waratahs HQ.
"I'm very excited of the opportunity to play rugby next season. It's been a pretty tough week for me over what's been reported.
"It's going to be a big transition. Obviously playing rugby at a schoolboy level compared to Super Rugby competition is a massive challenge.
"The last two years [playing AFL] have been a challenge for me, and this is another challenge as well. I'm just excited to take up rugby."
Folau's speed and agility will go a long way to helping new NSW coach Michael Cheika return a running brand of rugby to the 'Tahs, with the competition for places at the back now even more fierce.
Labelled a mercenary in some quarters after walking away from the Parramatta talks, Folau took to Twitter late on Sunday.
|@IzzyFolau Everyone is entitled to their opinions! But I'll speak the truth when it's my time.|
Folau told the media gathering that remarks made in the press over his character was upsetting to him and his family.
"I didn't promise anything [to Parramatta] ... from the time I left the Giants, there were no promises at all," he said.
"I met with Parramatta on Friday. For me there was nothing to hide. I met them face-to-face and told them what my decision was and how I was feeling, and that's how I operate.
"If I was entirely in it for the money, I would have stayed in the AFL. I walked away from that deal and there was nothing that was secured to me in the future that was ready. For me it wasn't about that."
When asked on whether he would play on past the 2013 season, Folau was non-committal.
"I'm just excited that I've signed with the Waratahs and next season is all I'm worried about," he said.
"I'll try my best, playing the best I can. Obviously if I really enjoy it, I might play on, otherwise I'll explore my options."
Waratahs coach Cheika said Folau was a man of impecable character and was happy to welcome him into the fold.
"The dealings I've had with Israel, from day one ... he's been honest, direct and I've really been happy with the way it's been set up," he said.
"The important thing is, first of all, that Israel gets into this team, meets his team-mates so that he's feeling good about himself, feeling good about the people he's playing footy with every day."
In a statement, Waratahs Rugby CEO Jason Allen said Folau's signing marked a new, exciting chapter in the franchise's history.
"Winning Israel over to rugby union is a major boost for the Waratahs and an exciting prospect for Super Rugby fans across Australia," he said.
"As a player, Israel clearly has an exceptional talent but what was equally important to us was the enormous level of respect he commands from those who know him and have worked with him."
The Waratahs' Super Rugby rivals the Melbourne Rebels yesterday questioned how Folau could fit under the NSW side's salary cap
The ARU has introduced $4.5 million salary cap for each of Australia's five Super Rugby clubs for the first time and takes effect from the start of next year.
The Rebels and the Waratahs are the only two Australian franchises to have a spot to fill on their 30-man rosters for next season, but the Melbourne side has shut the door on any prospect of signing the centre.
"I can't see how any Super Rugby clubs, including the Rebels, could afford him with the late timing and the salary caps that have been enforced," Rebels coach Damien Hill said on Monday.
Folau last week cited an absence of passion for AFL football after walking away from his deal with the GWS Giants, and last season's NRL wooden spooner Parramatta - under the guidance of former NSW State of Origin coach Ricky Stuart - was hot favourite to lure the 23-year-old back to rugby league.
News Limited reports had indicated the Eels had made a request to the NRL to deliberately break the salary cap in order to squeeze Folau onto their books for the next two seasons.
The NRL said on Friday that it had been working with the club to ensure Folau could fit under the Eels' salary cap for 2013 and "both believed that significant progress could be made".
But the league confirmed Folau had not accepted a formal, unconditional offer from Parramatta and the athletic back, who earned seven caps for Australia, would not play rugby league next season.
Folau's NRL career began in Melbourne in 2007, where he played 59 matches for the Storm before moving to Brisbane in 2009, scoring 36 tries in 37 appearances with the Broncos.
He made five State of Origin starts for Queensland and played in the inaugural NRL All Stars game in 2010.
Folau made his AFL debut for Greater Western Sydney in round one of 2012 and kicked his first of two career goals in round four against Adelaide.