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Super Rugby star backs SBW's radical plan to fix Australian rugby

By Alex McLeod

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Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall has backed the plan put forward by Sonny Bill Williams to help revitalise the Wallabies and rugby union in Australia.

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Speaking on Stan Sport last week, Williams said the Wallabies could benefit if Rugby Australia [RA] allowed more top local-based players to play club rugby abroad.

The 58-test international said getting RA’s biggest earners off its payroll would enable the national governing body to reinvest its funds into schoolboy rugby and help rugby union thrive at grassroots level.

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“What do we want to get out of the Wallabies at that level? We want them competing against the top-tier nations, we want them beating them consistently, we want them winning the Bledisloe Cup consistently,” Williams said.

“How do you do that? For me, I think we’ve got it wrong in the sense we think by hoarding the top-earned players, it’s not going to happen. The source of the problem is the footy at school.”

Williams, who who won two NRL Premierships and played 12 tests for the Kiwis in rugby league, said the 13-man sport is the more dominant rugby code at schoolboy level in Australia due to its accessibility in public schools.

The 36-year-old argued that by making rugby union more prevalent in public schools, the Wallabies and RA would be able to build more depth at the higher levels of the game.

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“The majority of public schools all play rugby league, and it’s the majority of private schools that will play rugby union,” he told Stan Sport.

“How do we change that? Well, I wouldn’t mind that rule going where we get some top-earned players going overseas.

“Say a player that’s on 500 grand that could go overseas and get $1 million, go overseas and get that, and that 500 grand goes back into Australian rugby union.

“Australian rugby union is struggling at the moment, so the money that’s left over from that, where does that money go? It goes into schoolboy footy.

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“Rugby league will never die in public schools, but if they can just open a little bit of space and create a bit of space for rugby union to thrive, I think that’s where you’ll see the depth in the higher ranks come into play.”

Since then, RA have toyed with the idea of scrapping the Giteau Law, the union’s eligibility rule that allows overseas-based players with at least 60 test caps and seven years of professional experience in Australia to play for the Wallabies.

The law was established in 2015 as a means to allow the Wallabies to select a few key players based abroad while encouraging less-experienced players to stay in Australia.

RA chief executive Andy Marinos has revealed the governing body will rethink its stance on the rule as pressure mounts from numerous ex-Wallabies, such as David Campese and the law’s namesake Matt Giteau, to abolish the law.

Such a move may allow the Wallabies to select any Australian in the world rather than just those based domestically, a tactic that has proven successful for the Springboks, who won the World Cup in 2019 and recently defeated the British and Irish Lions.

However, other former Wallabies, including Stirling Mortlock and Ben Darwin, have warned RA against dropping the Giteau Law as they believe doing so would set the national side, which is ranked seventh in the world and hasn’t won the Bledisloe Cup since 2002, back further than it already is.

Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Hall voiced his support for Williams’ proposal to cut funding to top-earning players on RA’s payroll and reinvest that money into the lower echelons of the game.

Hall, a three-time Super Rugby and two-time Super Rugby Aotearoa champion with the Crusaders, said ditching the Giteau Law could work in the short-term.

More significantly, the Maori All Blacks halfback noted RA and the Wallabies would benefit greatly by reinvesting funds saved by allowing Australia’s top player to go overseas back into schoolboy rugby and the revival of the now-defunct NRC.

Australia is without a semi-professional feeder competition between Super Rugby and club rugby after the NRC, which ran from 2014 to 2019, was scrapped last year as a result of the financial implications brought on by Covid-19.

Hall said it was important RA re-established that competition to help bring Australia’s lower-level players up to speed with their counterparts in New Zealand, which has the NPC below Super Rugby, and South Africa, which has the Currie Cup below the United Rugby Championship.

“I think possibly short-term, being able to get the players to come over, but I think the reason why we’re so successful is that we keep our players here, more so at the lower level,” Hall said as he compared the state of New Zealand rugby to that of Australia.

“Sonny Bill actually made a pretty good point when he was talking on Stan Sport about sorting the younger levels out with the school systems, being able to get the development up.

“Putting it all into the international [level] can be the short-term [plan] and they can bring players in from overseas, because there are some great Wallabies playing overseas that can’t play, but I think it’s probably a bigger level around the structures in behind.

“Especially with the younger school-grade system and then even trying to sort the NRC, the equivalent of the NPC.

“Those are the two things I think they need to sort out because I think it’s probably a little bit of an issue where we have such a great strength, and even the South Africans with the Currie Cup and their school-grade system as well.”

According to last year’s Annual Report, RA spent $11.7 million on player payments and Rugby Union Players’ Association costs in 2020, down by almost $9 million from 2019 due to wage cuts forced on by Covid-19.

The Wallabies currently have three overseas-based players in their Rugby Championship squad – Quade Cooper of the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners, Samu Kerevi of Tokyo Sungoliath and Duncan Paia’aua of Toulon.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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Super Rugby star backs SBW's radical plan to fix Australian rugby

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