Calls growing louder for star fullback to be unleashed on the British and Irish Lions.
Code-swapping revelation Israel Folau will try to grab a final chance to impress national selectors Saturday by starring in the Super 15 a day before Australia name their squad to face the Lions.
The NSW Waratahs’ athletic former rugby league Test back is presenting an irresistible case for a call-up against the British and Irish tourists, with freakish attacking skills making him a must-have pick for many pundits.
And the Waratahs’ crunch Super 15 derby game against ACT Brumbies gives Folau, among other players, the perfect stage before Australia coach Robbie Deans unveils his 25-man squad on Sunday for the upcoming Lions Tests.
Folau scored the winning try in last Saturday’s victory over the Western Stormers, and a week earlier he played a major role in the Waratahs’ record-breaking 72-10 thumping of the Southern Kings in South Africa.
“His performances speak for themselves, I think over the past three or four games he’s really shown his worth and just how much he’s improved,” Waratahs attack coach Daryl Gibson said.
The stakes are higher than normal with the Brumbies topping the Australian conference just one point ahead of the Queensland Reds, and the Waratahs fighting to make the play-offs.
In this weekend’s other key games, defending champions Waikato Chiefs have a New Zealand derby with the Hurricanes in Wellington, while seven-time champions the Canterbury Crusaders take on Kiwi rivals Auckland Blues.
Even though the Waratahs are in eighth place on the overall ladder and 11 points adrift of the Brumbies, matches between the two sides are feisty and the Canberra-based outfit have won their past three encounters.
“We’ve done too much work and we’ve done too much together as a group to let it slip now and it’s important that we keep moving forward and grow as a team,” Brumbies’ Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore said.
“Saturday will be a big test of that. The Waratahs are a very experienced team and they’re showing now that they know how to win and they’ll be hungry to win.”
Jake White’s Brumbies smashed the Waratahs 35-6 at home on March 9 but the Sydneysiders are much improved under the coaching of Michael Cheika and the return from injury of playmaker Berrick Barnes.
The Chiefs are also under pressure to hold on to their lead in the New Zealand conference, and go into Friday’s game with the Hurricanes just three points ahead of the Blues.
All Blacks flanker Sam Cane is out with with a bulging back disc in one of four changes for the Chiefs, as they embark on a tough run of six Super Rugby games against New Zealand rivals.
The Hurricanes upset the Central Cheetahs in South Africa last weekend and have won seven of their last 11 meetings with the Chiefs, who are one point behind the Brumbies despite an injury crisis.
The Crusaders have All Blacks number eight Kieran Read back from seven weeks out with a toe injury, while scrum-half Andy Ellis will play his 100th Super Rugby game against the Blues in Christchurch on Saturday.
The Crusaders may be third in the New Zealand conference and sixth overall but they showed their title credentials by downing the Brumbies 30-23 in Canberra a fortnight ago.
Canterbury have won eight of their last 11 encounters but Auckland are a much-improved outfit under new coach John Kirwan and have won four of their last five games.
Flyhalf Elgar Watts will get his first start of the season as the Cheetahs look to bounce back from last week’s loss against the Reds in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
South African conference leaders Northern Bulls have New Zealand’s Otago Highlanders at home, while in other games the Melbourne Rebels host the Stormers and Western Force take on South Africa’s Coastal Sharks in Perth.