At a time when rugby is struggling to control its identity and to determine its standing in the wide selection of sports Down Under, Rugby Australia (RA) may have dug themselves into a deeper hole with their most recent attempt at staying relevant.
Despite their financial struggles, RA have thrown the kitchen sink at a player who hasn’t yet played first grade in the sport, let alone graduated high school.
Joseph Suaalii has been touted as a generational talent, starring for the Kings College First XV in Sydney’s GPS since making his debut for the prestigious high school team at 14.
The 16-year-old caught the eyes of fans and pundits alike from both rugby union and league, but it was the 13-man code that appeared to have won the race for his signature last month.
Suaalii reportedly agreed to a $1.7 million deal across three years with rugby league powerhouse, the South Sydney Rabbitohs. But until he turns 17 in August, his contract can’t be processed with the NRL.
With there still being time to lure him back to union, RA have allegedly offered the teenager an absurd amount of money, a deal rumoured to be $3 million across three years.
Remember, he’s 16.
The pure desperation of not losing another prodigy like Kalyn Ponga to their cross-code rivals seems to have been too much to bear for Rugby Australia, who must see Suaalii as the solution to their issues.
Interim chief executive Rob Clarke rubbished the rumours about Suaalii mid-week, insisting that the value of the contract had been fabricated by the media.
For the sake of the sport, if they do manage to poach their man from league at the 11th hour, then Australian rugby needs Clarke to be telling the truth.
Let’s not forget, rugby is in a dire situation financially. They’ve been unable to secure a broadcast deal from next year with the future of Super Rugby still up in the air, which is just one issue at the top of a lengthy list.
In May, rugby received a financial aid package from World Rugby, but also released players from their contracts due to the uncertainty of the sports financial future. They had asked all players to take a 65% pay cut for six months due to the dire financial situation.
2019 Junior Wallabies Harry Hockings and Isaac Lucas, joined by Wallaby Izack Rodda, walked out on the Queensland Reds and Rugby Australia as a protest to this request.
Anthony Picone who was the manager of all three players, stated in response that “it is only reasonable that talented players want to secure stable employment during these times.”
How are these three players, and the players still playing in Australia for that matter, supposed to feel when they hear about a 16-year-old being offered this type of money?
Players like Wallaby Jordan Petaia, should now expect a significant raise that reflects his proven performance on the field when his current contract expires in 2022.
More players will head for the door if they aren’t paid and Rugby Australia must think long-term here.
While these players should expect more, the sport is struggling elsewhere – that’s where the money should be invested.
After three rounds of the original 15-team Super Rugby competition to start the year, there was an average of nearly 4,000 fewer fans at Australian home matches compared to the crowd averages from the whole season before.
Cash-strapped Rugby Australia has denied splashing out $3 million to nab teenage whiz Joseph Suaalii from under the noses of the NRL.https://t.co/2yDngo8fYW
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 21, 2020
This speaks volumes about the declining passion for the sport.
The Business Insider also reported that from 2001 to 2016, Australian playing numbers were down 63% from 148,000 participants nation-wide to 55,000, making rugby the 26th most popular sport in the country at the time.
While there’s been an increase in participation numbers since, the days of rugby’s reputation as a tier one sport in Australia appear over.
Writing for rugby.com.au, former Wallaby Rod Kafer believes that rugby could soon be a “niche” sport if Australia does go at it alone next year and ditch New Zealand.
A lot would have to be done to prevent the sport from dropping down from tier one status at the start of the millennium, into this category just 20 years later.
Surely the money would’ve then been better spent on reinvesting in the grassroots, and reminding us all why we loved this game in the first place?
But Rugby Australia have apparently made their choice, which puts a weight of expectation on the youthful shoulders of the teenager who’ll instantly become one of the faces of the sport if and when he officially puts pen to paper.
For the type of money has allegedly been offered, you’d expect the fullback to be the star of the show for not just the Waratahs but the Wallabies as well.
But at his age, he can’t be expected to be anything more than just part of the rotation while showing glimpses of promise when he does feature.
The step up to playing against men, probably without playing Shute Shield or in the National Rugby Championship first, will take time.
Still, people are expecting Suaalii to make his Waratahs debut sooner rather than later, in what is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is expected of the 16-year-old.
The postponed Tokyo Olympics with the Australia sevens team is also apparently part of the plan, as is the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
But if he falls short of what’s expected of him and needs a bit more time to develop, Rugby Australia can’t afford to pay anyone this type of money when they may end up watching from the sidelines.
The game is too fragile to allow that to happen.
Either he’ll sink or swim; falter under the pressure and cost the sport a lot of money, or he’ll guide the Wallabies to the endless successes that are seemingly expected of him.
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