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RUGBYPASS+ Big Will Skelton remains the Wallabies' one that got away

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Big Will Skelton remains the Wallabies' one that got away

In Philadelphia, Australia’s best NBA player Ben Simmons is touted to turn his back on the Boomers’ Tokyo Olympics campaign.

NBA champion Andrew Bogut, a man who loved pulling on the Boomers singlet, told Fox Sports as reports flew across media outlets like a ball flying on the court that a person should not have to be “wooed” to have to play for their nation.

He added that the frustration surrounding Simmons’ Olympics availability was the “allure” of knowing or not.

Across the North Atlantic Ocean, Will Skelton, who could be Australia’s most damaging rugby player, just put to paper to remain at La Rochelle in 2025.

He could be the most damaging Australian player – but he has not worn the Wallabies jersey since taking the field at the Stade de France on November 19, 2016.

Will Skelton debuted for the Wallabies in front of home fans in a 39-13 victory over the touring French. (Photo by Paul Seiser/Photosport)

This weekend, a month after helping La Rochelle reach the European Champions Cup final, he has led them to their first French Top 14 final. However the might of Toulouse, who prevailed at Twickenham 22-17 last month, was again too much for Skelton’s men, with the most celebrated side in French club history triumphing 18-8.

Meanwhile, 17,000 kilometres south-east, a 42-man French squad has just arrived in Sydney ahead of the first of three tests at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 7 – the first test at the quaint cricket ground, where Don Bradman once scored 452 for New South Wales and Victor Trumper hit the ball out of the ground in the early 20th century, since Alan Jones’ Wallabies took to the field in 1986.

Right next to the ground is a demolition site.

Seven years ago, Skelton, wearing socks that hardly fit over his humongous calves, made his test debut against Les Bleus at the old Sydney Football Stadium. Next year, it will be unveiled as Australia’s newest rectangular arena.

Aged 22, Skelton was treated to a rare start in a side that boasted the talents of Israel Folau and James Horwill, and he scored the opening try in the seventh minute as he caused havoc during their 39-13 win over Thierry Dusautoir’s French side.

It was back in 2019 that Rugby Australia’s Director of Rugby, together with Michael Cheika, desperately tried to lure Skelton home for the World Cup campaign in Japan but it never came to fruition.

His was a puppy face at that point, with patchy facial hair and the look of a boy in a giant’s body. The boy has now and well truly developed into a modern day rugby giant.

But as news broke that Simmons had likely pulled the pin on playing for Australia at the Olympics, the same sullen reality sunk in.

A similar question arose, too: Does big Will really want to play for the Wallabies?

It was back in 2019 that Rugby Australia’s Director of Rugby, together with Michael Cheika, desperately tried to lure Skelton home for the World Cup campaign in Japan but it never came to fruition.

In 2020, RA changed its eligibility laws, which – and still does – allows the Wallabies to pick overseas players who have played 60 tests and given seven years of service to Australian rugby to be eligible. It also allows for Dave Rennie to have two captain’s picks – regardless of their history in the gold jersey.

Rory Arnold, another giant who was lost to Australian rugby after the 2019 World Cup and went toe-to-toe with Skelton in this weekend’s Top 14 final, was set to be called up for The Rugby Championship last year. Skelton, however, was not.

Rory Arnold, who last represented the Wallabies at the 2019 World Cup, lined up opposite Will Skelton in the Top 14 final held over the weekend. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

It again added to the feeling Skelton did not desperately want to play for Australia.

Yet, for Skelton and his young family, perhaps it was a case that he did not want to have to endure the two weeks of mandatory quarantine upon arrival home to stop the spread of COVID-19.

That, and the likelihood his French outfit would have offered Skelton a massive seven-figure contract to stay at La Rochelle.

“I think it’s an interesting one,” former Wallabies captain Horwill told The XV.

“Each individual is different, but I think we’ve got to take into the whole consideration that it’s not as cut and dry as ‘he doesn’t want to play’. Particularly in COVID times, it’s not a simple exercise. He’s got a young family and he doesn’t want to leave them and if he comes back there’s a chance he’ll be away for a period of months, so I don’t think you can begrudge anyone for making that decision.

playing for your country is the highest honour, but in the current COVID environment, I think family and other things weigh on peoples’ minds.

Former Wallabies captain James Horwill

“Now, La Rochelle have obviously seen his worth and you would assume he would be on very good money.

“And you never know with these French clubs, if he goes away and gets injured playing for the Wallabies and they tear up that contract, I’m not saying he wouldn’t get another one, but they’re the team looking after you.

“Of course it’s worth it because playing for your country is the highest honour, but in the current COVID environment, I think family and other things weigh on peoples’ minds. It’s not like you can jump on a plane tomorrow and if something god forbid happens you can just jump back.”

In a recent interview with The Times, Skelton indicated the Wallabies remains on his mind.

“They’ve got the Giteau Law on eligibility, and I’ve signed a three-year deal here, so it’s out of my hands at the moment. All I can really do is play good footy and hope for the best,” he said.

Skelton has continued to grow his game since moving to France and playing under the watchful eyes of Jono GIbbes and Ronan O’Gara at La Rochelle. (Photo by Xavier Leoty/AFP via Getty Images)

Nor is the 2023 World Cup campaign in France lost on him either.

“It’s a goal for every player to play in the World Cup,” he added. “But I think it’s disrespectful if I’m thinking that I’ll be in the team two or three years away, when I haven’t been in the jersey since 2016. You’ve got to earn every right to play for your country and, eligibility-wise, all I can really do is play well here. If they change the rules, they change the rules.”

Rennie was keeping his powder dry and keeping the door ajar when it was put to him whether he was still hoping to have Skelton available for selection later this year or, indeed, for the World Cup.

“We certainly spoke to Will,” Rennie told The XV. “We’d love to get him back here obviously.

“He’s playing for La Rochelle and La Rochelle are going great guns and no surprise want to keep him long-term, so we’ll keep him in contact with and others around their future.

Skelton was always a giant, with the soft hands of a baby, but it was his work-rate and fitness which remained a bugbear for many.

“But obviously great for him, he’s probably got a pretty good deal in front of him.”

When Skelton left Australian rugby following the 2017 season with the Waratahs in Super Rugby, the powerful second-rower had only given his home fans a taste of what was to come.

Skelton was always a giant, with the soft hands of a baby, but it was his work-rate and fitness which remained a bugbear for many.

A season at Saracens changed that.

World Cup-winning Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer bemoaned his loss ahead of the 2019 World Cup, and was staggered Australian rugby could not get him fit enough. Dwyer labelled it an “indictment on us” that Skelton can go to the Premiership, a competition that previously was scoffed at Down Under, and end up a world beater.

Skelton’s two seasons with the Saracens produced two Premiership titles and one Champions Cup. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

He later helped Saracens to a European Champions Cup final victory and got La Rochelle within an inch of clinching their first too. Skelton has since been nominated for European player of the year. The big lock has admitted the move to La Rochelle has played to his strengths.

“The team’s helped a lot with how we play, and probably the style of play here at La Rochelle is a bit different to what it was at Sarries,” he told The Times. “We’re prioritising the power players, me being of them, so I get my hands on the ball a bit more and being able to go through some holes. It’s been an enjoyable experience and hopefully we can keep riding this wave we’re on at the moment.”

Could he do the same in Australian rugby?

Probably not at Super Rugby level, where he would be the main go-to man.

At Wallabies level? Perhaps, with a series of world class props developing in Taniela Tupou, Allan Alaalatoa and Angus Bell, coupled with the emergence of back-rowers Harry Wilson, Rob Valetini and Lachlan Swinton.

His quality is undeniable. Whether he could replicate that if he came back to Australia [is another story]. But you want a player to be able to pick from and I’m sure Dave Rennie and his coaching staff would relish the opportunity to have him put his hand up.

James Horwill

So just how big a blow is Skelton’s loss to Australian rugby?

“I think it will show that he’s played his best rugby since he left Australia,” Horwill says.

“Whether that was at Saracens, where he was keeping one of the two England locks out of their starting team, either Maro Itoje or George Kruis, and obviously at La Rochelle he’s helped get them to finals and been nominated for European player of the year.

“His quality is undeniable. Whether he could replicate that if he came back to Australia [is another story]. But you want a player to be able to pick from and I’m sure Dave Rennie and his coaching staff would relish the opportunity to have him put his hand up.

“Whether he gets selected or not, it depends on how you want to play the game but in terms of having bodies to pick from it would be nice to have him for sure.

“You’d certainly put him as a guy who can change the game. He has a unique ability in the sense of his sheer size and the way he can move as a big unit can create issues for defences and from a pure physical standpoint, there’s not many guys in world rugby who have all that put together. Plus, he has some quite deft touches with his hands and his ability to offload through the tackle creates more attention in defence.”

The Waratahs never saw the best of Skelton in his first stint with the team, but the struggling team would dearly benefit from the return of the big lock. (Photo by Clay Cross/Photosport)

Even still, Horwill is adamant size is not everything.

For the former World Cup-Wallabies captain, forward play is more about physicality.

“Size seems to be important, but I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all, it’s about having parity and the physicality,” he says.

“You wouldn’t say the All Blacks have a huge forward pack and wouldn’t look at them and go, ‘Oh jeez, these guys are enormous’ like the South Africans or some English teams over the years. But I think it’s about having the ability to physically matchup to the opposition and set a platform and you need parity or a better standard set-piece

“I don’t think size is everything, but the game at the moment, it’s very physical, it’s about that confrontational aspects, so if you’ve got a team that can manage that, regardless of size, I think that’s half the battle.”

Skelton would undeniably be the cream on top of a Wallabies emerging pack. He would likely not just make the team, but be a huge point of difference.

For Australian rugby, his decision to stay in France is not a surprise – but it’s a blow.

Like how Bogut described Simmons’ decision to withdraw from the Olympics, it is the allure that stings the most.

More stories from Christy Doran

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