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RA should scrap eligibility laws

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The case for relaxing Aussie Rugby's eligibility laws

Last week I wrote about short and tactical kicking and how the better international teams are using it in the wider channels to overcome rush defence.

After a couple of rounds of Super Rugby we’ve seen the South Africans use it to great effect, while the Aussies have been getting it a little twisted and aren’t identifying the right moments or are unable to execute properly. In particular, the Reds over the weekend spent far too much time putting average kicks down Ben Smith’s throat, which ultimately cost them the game.

This brings to mind the question of which Australian rugby players are more comfortable dropping it onto the toe and are ideally suited to the current international arena. Players like Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale (when he plays fullback) and Christian Lealiifano all spring to mind, but if you’re like me there are three names that you associate with short/tactical kicking, particularly out wide, and those are Nic White, Luke Morahan, and James O’Connor.

There is just one slight problem. They are all ineligible for selection for the Wallabies under the current laws.

Now, Australian rugby has had nowhere near the same player exodus as the Kiwis or Saffas, but it is still one of the larger issues Rugby Australia is dealing with. What compounds the issue even more, is that our national team kinda sucks at the moment, which doesn’t help the chances of retaining talent. It’s easier for the All Blacks to take a hardline stance on this, as they’ve won the last two World Cups and are the most iconic brand in sport. I’m pretty sure they could get a bank loan using the Bledisloe as collateral with how long they’ve had it.

Yet despite everything in their favour, the All Blacks are losing increasingly more players to cashed-up overseas clubs.  It does make you wonder, what chance do we really have? Richie McCaw had a crack recently when responding to a question on how to stop the player drain. His take was that you build a good culture that players don’t want to walk away from.

My interpretation: you can’t stop it.

I don’t blame players for doing the dash overseas. Professional athletes have a limited shelf-life, and while it might appear otherwise, not everyone can be a Fox Sports commentator after retiring.  

The Saffas have adapted to reality better than anyone, and as of this week have opted against the continual ring-fencing of their overseas cattle by abolishing the 30 cap eligibility rule introduced at the start of the 2017 season. This is despite the rule leading to recent successes by facilitating the return of Faf de Klerk and Duane Vermeulen. The impact of Faf, in particular, was clear in the historic Boks victory over the AB’s in Wellington.

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SA Rugby will now try to keep talent at home by offering salary top-ups to around 75 players of national interest. Will this stop the rot? Not likely, but what is of real interest is they have signaled that they will be strictly enforcing their rights in respect of player availability during applicable Test windows. One commentator made the salient point that this will make signing South African players less attractive if they are regularly unavailable for their clubs.

This and everything else you’ve read so far are strong enough reasons in my books for Australia to adopt the same philosophy. Early rounds of Super Rugby have shown a number of local players putting their best foot forward, and if you combine them with the best of our players abroad, you have a pretty mean squad. Imagine being able to bring on Michael Hooper and Will Skelton with 25 minutes to go in a World Cup semi? We could be the fast finishers for once.

But what about Super Rugby you cry! Won’t relaxing the laws mean that the player exodus will get worse, and the Australian teams will be rubbish? Well, you’ve probably noticed that Super Rugby hasn’t been all that great lately anyway. Crowd and television numbers are weak compared to other winter codes, which doesn’t really come as much of a surprise given how little promotion the competition receives. Rugby Australia have dumped all their eggs in the Wallaby basket in terms of exposure of the game, so why not do everything we can to make sure the Wallaby brand is a successful one?

Raelene Castle has said that the Giteau law is keeping our best players in Australia. I doubt that is the case, and I won’t be surprised if Adam Coleman is not the last overseas departure announced in the next six months.

This honestly doesn’t worry me, because from what I’m seeing, the players that go overseas are better for it. It isn’t just Will Skelton’s weight loss that has been impressive, he is fundamentally a better rugby player. Nic White has said he is in the best form of his career, and after watching a number of Exeter Chiefs games recently, I agree with him. Lachie McCaffrey and Scott Fardy are two great examples of players whose growth didn’t occur in Australia, but abroad. The list goes on.

Castle has stated that South Africa making the change will not prompt any reconsideration of the Wallaby eligibility laws. I understand why, and that it is partly fear of the unknown that drives this, but I see it differently. I see changing the eligibility laws as not just a way to make the Wallabies more successful, but an opportunity to grow the player pool. I see it as an opportunity to bring the intellectual property of successful international clubs into Australian Rugby. After the last three or so years of disappointment, I think we can all agree that it’s time for some fresh ideas.

Tom Banks Brumbies press conference:

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The case for relaxing Aussie Rugby's eligibility laws