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Rugby Australia's NRL cash could be used to find a flyhalf

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Daniel Pockett/Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Enticing talented rugby league players to switch codes has long been a part of Rugby Australia’s playbook to building a strong Wallaby side.

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The most successful return from the strategy was arguably the coup of Matt Rogers, Lote Tuqiri and Wendell Sailor, three of the best outside backs seen in Wallaby gold since the turn of the millennium.

The trio were integral in taking a stacked Wallabies side to the World Cup final in 2003 with quality all around them.

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Since then the returns have been a mixed bag as Rugby Australia has failed to pull the top tier superstars out of the NRL with regularity since Israel Folau.

Winger Marika Koroibete is the most established of the current generation of converts, while the highly anticipated switch of Suliasi Vunivalu has yet bring dividends for the Wallabies.

With a Lions tour on the horizon in 2025 and a home Rugby World Cup shortly afterward in 2027, the rumour mill has been purring for months about the next bunch of targets including former Australian schoolboy Joseph Suaalii, currently with the Roosters in the NRL.

There must be a core belief in Australian rugby that the outside backs are the only ones capable of making such a transition, but at the moment the Wallabies don’t really need any more wingers or centres.

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The talent is already there with one of the best crops Australia has had in generations in the outside backs.

Len Ikitau is one of the world’s best centres at just 23-years-old, defensively you will not find anyone in the NRL who can replicate what he brings.

Hunter Paisami and Izaia Perese are two more gifted athletes in the midfield with more to give at the international level.

Jordan Petaia debuted as a centre under previous coach Michael Cheika but has yet to nail down a position. A strong ball runner, he has been moved towards the wing without the rounded game to play further inside, but remains a serious talent with potential to unlock.

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Tom Wright has been a successful league convert and has shown flashes of brilliance on the right wing. Andrew Kellaway, a top union prospect through the age grades, has come along and had a breakout year in 2021 bolstering the wing depth.

With the aforementioned Koroibete, Japan-based Samu Kerevi, the Wallabies stocks of wingers and centres have never been stronger in the last decade.

Just where Suaalii would fit within this group is unsure, he would have to become a fullback, which is where he played as a schoolboy in both codes but is currently used on the wing at the Roosters.

What the Wallabies sorely need is more ball players capable of creating for the talent outside them.

It is no surprise that all this talent out wide has generally been at their best over the last two years when Quade Cooper has been in the starting side, a playmaker capable of pulling the strings and running plays with the precision needed to open up the defence.

The young crop of No 10s in Super Rugby include Carter Gordon of the Rebels, Tane Edmed, Ben Donaldson of the Waratahs, Reesjan Pasitoa at the Force and Noah Lolesio, who the Wallabies have recently shown a lack of confidence in.

There is plenty of promise there but none really are commanding automatic selection yet with many very young and still finding their feet in Super Rugby.

Firstly, if there is cash available to pursuit NRL players, it should be used first and foremost to bring Wallaby-eligible talent plying their trade offshore back into Australia or top coaches offshore who can get the best out of the talent already there. That would seem like a better use of the resources.

But if they want to use the cash to bring in NRL players, as has been the modus operandi over the long term, why not target some playmaking talent from League at five-eighth or halfback to compete with that young group instead of the talented outside back?

Is it out of the realms of possibility that professional rugby league halfback couldn’t become a better option after three or four seasons?

Not just a league centre like Matt Burton who has a pretty bomb, but a genuine playmaker capable of ripping apart teams to help bolster a position that Australia has a genuine shortage.

The payoff if the transition is successful would far outweigh the benefits of finding another wing.

There is a stigma around the League playmakers, but they generally are much better ball-players, possess more of a running game and are better are manipulating a defensive line to create gaps.

Australian Rugby has been plagued by No 10’s who don’t have the ability to break the line, put someone else through the line, or generally provide a threat for a defence. They become bogged down with lateral, static play within the structure they are coached into and never hone this important craft.

They can’t create, in a nutshell, and are then destined to fail by the time they reach the top level against the elite international defences. The list of failed flyhalves in the Australian system is a long one. If the risk taken on League convert fails, it won’t be off trend anyway.

League five-eighth Benji Marshall failed to make the transition to union with the Blues in 2014 but his ex-teammates had belief something would have worked out longer term if he persisted.

“Although he left early, if you look at some of his highlights for the Blues, he was pretty exceptional,” former teammate James Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod last year.

“Especially on that South African tour, he set-up some beautiful tries, scored one himself against the Lions. He had his moments even when he came off the bench against the Highlanders.”

Just because it hasn’t happened recently doesn’t it mean it can’t for a League halfback or five-eighth. Former Brisbane Bronco Berrick Barnes forged out a long career in rugby union and represented the Wallabies at a time where they had depth.

Rugby league history runs deep for 20-year-old Roosters halfback Sam Walker but he has experience playing union as a schoolboy. He has outstanding vision, the full variety of passes, an attacking kicking game and a running game. He is a true ball-player with genius potential.

Whether he would switch codes is another question, but he is the type of candidate that should be targeted if Rugby Australia wanted to adjust their NRL raiding strategy.

If Walker made a successful transition to union under an innovative coach who was brave enough to play an attacking game and optimise his skillset, the Wallabies would benefit with a different type of No 10 to call on, one that they haven’t been able to find in awhile.

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