Wallabies coach Michael Cheika likes what he sees in the 23-year-old Brumbies hooker
Thrown into the fray against South Africa for just his second cap, there was no danger of Fainga’a being overwhelmed by the moment.
“Call it a coach’s gut feel,” Cheika tells Sport360. “He’s a young fellow who’s on the way up, I think he can handle it and he’s got a good attitude, he likes to be in the battle.”
That was certainly the case last Saturday night in Brisbane when Fainga’a ran on in the 35th minute to face up to the man many rate as the No.1 hooker in the world – Malcolm Marx.
“It was special,” Fainga’a says of facing the Springbok rake. “We all know what (Marx) can bring to the table and what he does on the field.”
But Folau was more than up to the challenge, shading Marx in his time on the field, making a powerful five runs for 26 metres and one tackle-bust, while Marx made just three runs for nine metres.
As Cheika was to say after the match it was a coming of age for Fainga’a and the rest of the young Wallabies team, with 22-year-old prop Taniela Tupou also making a huge difference as Australia turned it around after trailing 15-7 after 28 minutes.
It didn’t all go Fainga’a’s way, however. He was pinged very harshly for two “crooked” lineout throws in the 64th and 65th minute with the Wallabies clinging to a 20-18 lead.
“I just had to go on to the next job,” says Paddington-born Folau, “I didn’t have time to complain about it or dwell on it. I knew what the next job was for me and I had to move on.”
The next day he knew he had been in a game the night before.
“Bit bruised, sore after a game like that,” he says from a Wallabies fan day at Bond University, on the Gold Coast.
“South Africans have obviously got a lot of aggression and physicality in games like that.”
But Fainga’a and his teammates had gritted it out, snapping a four-match losing streak with a much-needed victory.
It’s a far cry from Sydney’s inner-city Darlinghurst, where Fainga’a spent his early years, the fourth of six children – “two older brothers, one older sister and two young sisters”.
His parents both hail from Tonga but he and all his siblings were born in Australia.
The name Folau has nothing to do with his famous team-mate Israel, nor is he any relation to the other renowned Australian rugby family of the same name with siblings Saia, Anthony and Colby.
His first name – which means “to travel” in Polynesian – he explains, actually comes from a “church conference that went out to Tonga in 1995, the year I was born”.
Fainga’a discovered his God-given talent of rugby early.
“Dad and his brother used to play,” he continues. “I had a first cousin (Chris Siale) that used to play a bit, he was at the Tahs and then went to the Reds and then went to France.”
He also has another cousin who plays a bit – Wallabies team-mate Tolu Latu.
“I started playing rugby at Canterbury juniors out in Dulwich Hill when I was four or five,” says Fainga’a.
“Running around on the field, just touch, nothing really.
“I started out on the wing then slowly made my way all the way to the front row.
“I didn’t know what position I wanted to play, (so I) made my way to the forwards and stuck there and then made my way from playing flanker into the front row.”
But that mobility and skillset from his early days in the backs and the back-row is still evident, as the Boks found out last weekend.
As for his early role models: “I watched Taf (Tatafu Polota-Nau, now a team-mate) heaps but for me it was Jeremy Paul when I was growing up, I liked the way he played around the park.
“Also (some other Wallabies of Tongan heritage) Toutai Kefu, George Smith – those other guys.”
He also learnt during his time at famous league nursery Matraville High School before his parents moved out west to Blacktown, near to where Wallabies fly-half Kurtley Beale was raised, and began studying at Hills Sports High School.
It was here he first met up with good mate, and fellow Wallabies hooker, Brandon Paenga-Amosa who was cross town at Endeavour Sports High School.
“Yeah yeah, me and Brandon are friends,” he explains. “We hang out a bit. We’ve known each other a long time through school rugby, club rugby.”
And it was rugby that provided much-needed direction in young Folau’s life when he left Hills. At one time he was even working as a garbage man – on the back of the same truck as Paenga-Amosa.
“After school I was chilled out a bit,” he says, “I was working a bit, wasn’t really doing anything much, didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to do yet, just going from job to job.
“Then I happened to make Australia Under 20s (in 2015) and I thought I would give it a crack after that and see if it could really take off.”
The Australian Under 20s that year travelled to the Junior World Championship in Italy. The young Wallabies finished fifth with just one loss, coincidentally to the junior Springboks.
Alongside Folau, who scored one try in the tournament against Wales, were current Wallabies team-mates Ned Hanigan and Lukhan Tui.
Afterwards he continued his rugby education at Sydney University who have played a big part in Fainga’a’s career.
“Our rep side for Canterbury was Sydney University,” he explains, “I’ve been a junior at Sydney Uni pretty much since I was 16.
“One hundred per cent they’ve helped get me to the stage where I am now.”
His next step was the National Rugby Championship (NRC), where he was a part of the Sydney Stars squad, also in 2015, before joining the NSW Country Eagles in 2016.
In 2017 he caught the eye of the Brumbies who signed him to an extended player squad contract for the 2018 season, and he joined the Canberra Vikings late that year.
After some early impressive displays Cheika invited him to join the Wallabies squad as a development player ahead of the third Bledisloe in Brisbane last year, which the Wallabies won, and the Barbarians match in Sydney.
He continued his form in Super Rugby this season though there have been setbacks, most noticeably when he was sent off for a headbutt against the Bulls in Pretoria, though Fainga’a says this helped him learn an important lesson.
“I definitely learnt a lot (from the sending off), I learnt heaps,” he says.
“I learned how I actually need to control my emotions, not let it get ahead of me, myself. I’ve got to keep a cool head and not let those things overcome myself.”
Despite the red card Fainga’a was included in the Wallabies squad later in the year and after continuing to impress at training, and scoring three tries for the Vikings in the first round of the NRC against Queensland Country this year, Fainga’a made his Test debut in the toughest of cauldrons last month, coming off the bench in the 52nd minute against the All Blacks at Eden Park.
He held his spot for the Boks Test in Brisbane where he made a telling impact. But Folau knows this is just the start and he has to keep improving.
“I think for myself, just being consistent,” he says of what he needs to work on. “Getting around the park comes second, it’s just keeping the set-piece focus, real consistent. As a team we need to start finding ourselves more.”
Argentina marks an important step in that growth this coming Saturday.
“It will be another physical match,” predicts Folau. “A very passionate side and it will be a good game for us.
“Obviously one of our ex-coaches Mario (Ledesma) is coaching there so he’ll know a fair bit about us.
“But we’ll be prepping up the way we did last week and just keeping the focus on ourselves. And when it comes to game time – everything is done to get us into the game.”
Which is where Folau Fainga’a loves to be.