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Who is Joseph Suaalii and why is his rugby union switch such a big deal?

By Ian Cameron
Jack Welsby of England clashes with Joseph Suaalii of Samoa during the Rugby League World Cup Semi-Final match between England and Samoa at Emirates Stadium on November 12, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

He’s being billed as the next Israel Folau, but who is 19-year-old Joseph Suaalii and why is it such a big deal that he’s switching to rugby union?

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The teen prodigy has captured the attention of rugby league fans and media alike with his impressive skills on the field, but what can rugby union fans unfamiliar with the teen sensation expect from the 6’5, 98kg fullback who has signed for Rugby Australia and the Waratahs from October 2024 onwards.

Born on August 1, 2003, in Penrith, Sydney, a young Suaalii’s athletic potential was clear early when he set the Australian 12-year-old male high jump record in 2015.

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His footy career began in the thirteen-man code when the then 12-year-old honed his rugby league skills while playing for the Glenmore Park Brumbies before moving on to the Coogee Wombats. Suaalii then attended Regentville Public School before moving on to The King’s School in Parramatta, where he was introduced to rugby union.

There, he played the 15-man code as a fullback for the 1st XV from the age of just 14, showcasing his precocious talent against players three to four years his elder.

In 2018, a 15-year-old Suaalii started playing rugby league for the South Sydney Rabbitohs U16s in the Harold Matthews Cup, where it soon became clear that the famous club had a teen prodigy on their hands.

The talented player’s career continued to gain momentum when in 2019 he signed with the Rabbitohs until the end of the 2021 season, captaining the Harold Matthews Cup team in 2019 and being named the Harold Matthews Cup Player of the Year.

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However, in mid-2020 the code war for his signature would start to gather pace, with Suaalii’s future in the NRL uncertain after reports surfaced that Rugby Australia was vying for his signature.

On this occasion, it was the league that won, as it was announced in November 2020 that Suaalii had signed with the Sydney Roosters from 2022 onwards, with a ‘get out’ clause having been accepted by the club.

Suaalii
Joseph Suaalii of the Roosters looks on during the round 21 NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Brisbane Broncos at the Sydney Cricket Ground on August 04, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Perhaps the biggest moment of Sua’ali’i’s career to that point came on 15 March 2021 when the ARL Commission granted him an exemption to play in the NRL before turning 18 years old. He duly made his senior debut on 22 May 2021, playing at centre for the Sydney Roosters in their round 11 loss to Brisbane. At the age of 17 years and 294 days, he became the first player since Jason Taumalolo in 2010 to debut prior to their 18th birthday.

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His impressive performance on the field continued as he scored his first NRL try the following week in the Sydney Roosters’ victory over the Canberra Raiders. However, the young player was ruled out for the remainder of the 2021 NRL season due to a foot injury.

After an impressive 2022 season, the 18-year-old received the honour of being selected for the New South Wales 22-man squad for Game One of the State of Origin series,  his meteoric rise to the top echelons of the sport effecting ending any remaining doubt around his footballing prowess.

Later, in October, international honours would follow. He was named in the Samoa squad for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, where he played in every game of the tournament, including the final, despite underdogs Samoa losing to Australia by a score of 30-10.

Fast forward to 2023 and Eddie Jones’ return to Australia saw Suaalii once again targeted for a return to rugby union and this time the Wallabies would get their man.

In March 2023 Rugby Australia confirmed that Suaalii would play rugby from October 2024 until at least the end of 2027. The lure of featuring in the 2025 British & Irish Lions tour of Australia for the Wallabies and a potential home Rugby World Cup four years later is said to have been a major factor, as was a reported $1.6million (£870,000) per season for three years. The salary – if accurate – will make him one of the best-paid players in rugby union and likely the best-paid player in Australian rugby.

Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan commented on the deal: “Welcome back to Rugby, Joseph.”

Joseph Suaalii
Joseph Suaalii with ball in hand for Samoa. Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Given he hasn’t played a minute of professional rugby union, Rugby Australia might struggle to publically justify his enormous wage packet. His signature is also rumoured not to have gone down particularly well among the current Wallabies squad.

Although he’s distanced himself from the deal, Wallabies head coach Jones – a well-known league fan – will no doubt be delighted to have a player of Suaalii’s calibre among his ranks. Code hoppers Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri all featured in Jones’ 2003 World Cup final and the obvious similarities with Folau are there for all to see.

He’s not done anything in the sport yet, but only a fool would bet against him becoming a rugby union superstar in the not-too-distant future.

 

 

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