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FEATURE Flood of back three talent highlights Australia’s folly in pursuing league stars

Flood of back three talent highlights Australia’s folly in pursuing league stars
2 months ago

Mark Nawaqanitawase had one of his best games of the year for New South Wales on Saturday, his performance against the ACT Brumbies in the slop and torrential rain at Allianz Stadium in Sydney reminding Waratahs and Wallabies fans alike what they will miss in 2025.

Like the Waratahs more broadly, Nawaqanitawase’s form in 2024 has been rather up and down. Playing his third game of the year in the No.15 jersey, having spent most of the season on the right wing, Nawaqanitawase was sound under the high ball, kicked well and carried strongly from the back as the game evolved in arguably the worst conditions a game has ever been played in Australia in the professional era.

His performance was a timely reminder of his qualities, and has put him well and truly back in the frame to feature in Joe Schmidt’s Wallabies squad at some point this year.

It won’t be all year, however, with the big Waratahs outside back linking up with NRL powerhouses the Sydney Roosters at the end of the 2024 season.

Nawaqanitawase deciding over the off-season that he was up for a new challenge in rugby league was simply because the Roosters got in contact and asked to meet up, with a hole to fill in their outside backs. Rugby league clubs making contact with rugby players isn’t new, but in this particular case, there were definite retaliatory vibes to it all.

Mark Nawaqanitawase
Nawaqanitawase is switching to league later this year but could still play for the Wallabies beforehand (Photo Saeed Khan/AFP) via Getty Images)

The hole the Roosters needed to fill was that of Joseph-Aukuso Suaali’i, the precocious schoolboy rugby prodigy who spurned the 15-a-side game to sign with South Sydney straight out of high school and made his NRL debut as a 17-year-old before stunning the Rabbitohs by switching to arch-rivals the Roosters.

Having landed the 2027 Rugby World Cup, and with the British & Irish Lions arriving in 2025, repatriating Suaali’i back into Australian rugby became a vanity project for former Rugby Australia chair, Hamish McLennan. He was heavily and personally involved in the recruitment process from start to finish, and front and centre in the announcements made.

“Welcome back to Rugby, Joseph,” McLennan said in the March 2023 RA statement confirming he’d landed his man.

McLennan would go on to launch a one-man pursuit of rugby league players in 2023 – particularly those with strong rugby backgrounds – but for all his bravado, bluster and promises of “plenty more” set to follow Suaali’i, no more NRL players were enticed to switch codes. Since McLennan’s ousting as RA chair following the disastrous 2023 Rugby World Cup, all plans for further raids on rugby league have been scrapped.

Even with losing Nawaqanitawase next season, the Tahs will gain Andrew Kellaway from the Melbourne Rebels and still have Max Jorgensen, Dylan Pietsch and Tristan Reilly to cover the back three positions.

Suaali’i’s signature – on a three-year contract at an eye-watering reported AUD$1.6 million per season – was and continues to be seen as just the latest example of Australian rugby seeking silver bullet solutions, and came only months after Eddie Jones returned to Australia with similar promises of solving all ills in the game.

Talk about pressure on the new recruit to deliver.

But the interesting sub-plot comes in the form of the sudden embarrassment of outside back riches within Australian rugby right now. Players have either rediscovered form, taken the next step in their careers, or seemingly emerged from nowhere, and their collective presence leaves fans asking the same question: where on earth is Joseph Suaali’i going to slot in next season?

The Waratahs is the first answer to that question, but therein lies the first problem.

Even with losing Nawaqanitawase next season, the Tahs will gain Andrew Kellaway from the Melbourne Rebels and still have Max Jorgensen, Dylan Pietsch and Tristan Reilly to cover the back three positions. Full-back certainly looks unavailable for the new recruit.

Joseph Suaali'i
Joseph Suaali’i was lured from Sydney Roosters but it is not obvious which position he will fill at NSW (Photo Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Suaali’i has played mostly at left centre for the Roosters this year, which would make a move to the No.13 channel fairly unlikely, in that you’d hardly ask a guy used to defending on only one side of the field to suddenly take on what is widely regarded as the most difficult defensive position in rugby.

Besides, in Isaia Perese’s absence – and he will also head to Leicester later this year – Joey Walton has made a pretty irresistible case for continuing at outside centre for the Waratahs.

There will be an assumption that Suaali’i will feature in a Wallabies jersey at some point, and he spoke at the time of his defection of the pull of the Lions tour, but that’s going to be a far from smooth progression given the current form of outside backs around the country.

Such has been Tom Wright’s return to form this season at 15 for the ACT Brumbies, it will be a coin flip to decide whether he or Kellaway wears that number for Australia against Wales in July. And the other one should slot straight into the right wing/hybrid full-back role alongside anyway.

Tom Wright
Brumbies’ in-form Tom Wright has already played on both wings and at full-back for Australia (Photo Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Queensland Reds full-back Jock Campbell has similarly regained his spark in recent weeks and ensured he will at least be discussed, though he’s currently a little way behind Wright and Kellaway for the national jersey.

The Brumbies’ Len Ikitau looks like he’ll slot straight back into the 13 jersey he was absurdly left out of for the RWC, though the Reds’ Josh Flook will mount a decent alternate case. It is widely assumed that the Wallabies’ inside centre spot is Hunter Paisami’s to lose, which would then make NSW’s Lalakai Foketi – usually a 12 – an option to play one spot wider as well. And Jordan Petaia may also yet feature in this conversation.

The wing spots currently have no shortage of options either, with Nawaqanitawase still in the frame for this season alongside the likes of Queensland’s Mac Grealy, Brumbies excitement machine Corey Toole, Pietsch from the Waratahs and Jorgensen as well, once he’s fit again. Petaia is also an option in the wide channels.

The Rebels’ other former Sevens star Darby Lancaster and Queensland’s former Australian Under-20s young gun Tim Ryan have both captured plenty of attention with runaway highlight reels that show there’s still plenty of outside back talent around for much less than AUD$1.6 million a year.

The Brumbies’ New Zealand-born Ollie Sapsford qualifies via his Australian mother and has earned plenty of praise for his versatility this season, starting games at inside centre and on both wings, as well as shifting to outside centre during matches.

The Melbourne Rebels’ former Australian Sevens flyer Lachie Anderson has enjoyed a consistent season, and the big surprise packet in the last month has been the Western Force’s Bayley Kuenzle, who left the Brumbies as a fly-half, slotted into inside centre on arrival in the west, and has made much more than just a fist of playing in the 13 and 14 jerseys of late. He has a good turn of pace and surprisingly good finishing ability for someone who has spent a lot of his time in midfield.

This is all before we start thinking about the real explosions of wing talent this season, in the Rebels’ other former Sevens star Darby Lancaster, and Queensland’s former Australian Under-20s young gun Tim Ryan. Both have captured plenty of attention with runaway highlight reels that show there’s still plenty of outside back talent around for much less than AUD$1.6 million a year.

Bayley Kuenzle
Bayley Kuenzle has played at No.10 and 12 but shown his ability at 13 and wing recently (Photo Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Lancaster has a real eye for the line, but Ryan has been just as impressive with his defence than with his outstanding attack.

Ryan grabbed the headlines with his three-try starting debut in Brisbane against the Blues playing on the left wing, but has since followed it up with a double against the Crusaders in the Reds’ famous win in Christchurch, and another try last week against the Rebels. And his last two games have been on the right wing.

That’s a list of names much longer than there are places available in a Wallabies squad, come the July Tests and The Rugby Championship later in the year, but it also shows that there is more than enough talented outside backs in Australian rugby right now.

The Suaali’i pursuit has already cost Rugby Australia Mark Nawaqanitawase, and you just hope it doesn’t trigger another mini exodus as more players find the budget a bit on the skinny side come contract extension time.

The pursuit of league players has been a card regularly played over the last 25 years in Australia, and it’s almost always been about the publicity and the headlines as much as it has been about the acquisition of talent. Most, if not all, the big-name and big-money recruits ended up back in league, and it’s frankly surprising Suliasi Vunivalu hasn’t ended the same way.

The Joseph Suaali’i scenario already feels like it will play out exactly the same, with the Roosters making no secret of the fact they intend to get him back once his contract is done.

Which kind of begs the question, what is the point of it all? AUD$1.6 million a year for three years could pay for four or five of those names above, and they’re already in the game.

The Suaali’i pursuit has already cost Rugby Australia Mark Nawaqanitawase, and you just hope it doesn’t trigger another mini exodus as more players find the budget a bit on the skinny side come contract extension time.

It would be a hell of a price to pay for the latest silver bullet.

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Comments

20 Comments
D
Derek Murray 64 days ago

Yep. The insanity of the decision of trying to outspend RL for outside backs just looks more and more stupid as time goes on and talented players either bully us into paying overs to keep them (Jorgensen) or simply leave as Uncle Nick comes calling (Nawaqanitawase).

H
Harry 67 days ago

Love it when we overlap! Promise it was not forethought.

B
Bill 69 days ago

Hey Brett I’m one who is looking forward to seeing JS back on the rugby field. I was under the impression that a large portion of his contract was via a third party so RA isn’t having to foot the bill

My big concern is around the Tahs and what is happening there, why are so many players bailing. Is it the program, the coaches or the culture. Joe Schmidt recently said he had been at the Tahs all week and DC is a good coach. Something doesn’t gel , 10 front row forwards in a season that’s not bad luck

J
JD Kiwi 70 days ago

Great analysis Brett and what a shame that RA haven't spent more on the tight five instead. BTW I see the latest 8-9 Combo has dropped, looking forward to that.

It's incredible the amount of damage that Hamish and Eddie's egos did in such a short space of time. From memory Eddie drove the initial drive to poach league stars way back in the 00s, with community rugby paying the price in reduced funding. Australia went from 15% of its income being spent on community rugby in 2002 to 2.4% in 2015, sheer madness and look where they are now.

Hamish reminds me of Scrappy Doo. Always mouthing off, spoiling for a fight with bigger dogs who'd eat him alive. Sadly RA didn't have a Scooby Doo to bail him out.

J
Jon 70 days ago

The key point I think that is missing is that if Joseph wants to guarantee a Lions spot, he really has to play wing in his first year. He is easily going to nail down whatever he wants to do, but with just half a season, how much of a factor he proves to be in the Lions series could be dictated by this initial choice of playing position.

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Nick 70 days ago

As you say in your article Brett, the point was Hamish and his vanity - plain and simple. The crazy bit is that sua’ali’i has to be probably twice the player of mark N, no easy feat, just for RA to get their money's worth!?! And as you say, tahs aren't short of wingers, props on the other hand id like to see $1.6m spent on. I still shake my head at the absolute carry on in the media and comments section around the boon of getting sua’ali’i and the revenue it'd generate. It was all such hogwash imo and short sighted, real sugar hit stuff. And wasnt Waugh (and others) on the board at the time this money was spent? You say silver bullet, I'd say sugar hit but without the flavour.

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