‘Game has spent more than we can afford’: RA rules out any more Suaalii-like raids on NRL in major U-turn


In a stunning rebuke of Hamish McLennan’s decision to headhunt Joseph Suaalii from the NRL, Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh says gone are the days the code will throw blank cheques at players from rival codes.

It was in March that RA, led by chairman McLennan, trumpeted the signing of Suaalii from the Sydney Roosters.

A former Australian Schoolboys star, Suaalii, who was compared to Israel Folau as a 16-year-old, turned down RA’s advances to sign with the Sydney Roosters when still at school.

But looking to get back in the media spotlight and lure across a superb young back with rugby pedigree to help raise the profile and standing of the Wallabies ahead of the British and Irish Lions series in 2025 and home World Cup in 2027, McLennan took it upon himself to lure back one of the NRL’s best young players.

By doing so, it cost RA an estimated $4.8 million to sign the talented outside back over three years, with Suaalii to switch codes following the 2024 NRL season.

McLennan celebrated the signing, saying the fringe State of Origin player was at last “home”.

NRL young gun Joseph Suaalii signed a huge $4.8 million deal to join Rugby Australia at the end of 2024. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Former Wallabies back turned pundit Morgan Turinui said Suaalii’s impact in the game and the attention he would generate for rugby would pay for his contract.

“He’d be on good money, but I think he’ll be worth it,” he said.

Others, however, questioned the price it cost to sign Suaalii and said RA would have been more prudent to develop its own talent rather than spend overs later.

At the same time, player agents warned RA that the massive price tag of Suaalii would drive up the asking price of others in rugby.

Now, the chickens are coming home to roost, with the Waratahs and RA coming under pressure to keep rising stars Mark Nawaqanitawase and Max Jorgensen in the game.

As Joseph Suaalii moves closer to switching codes, Mark Nawaqanitawase is being pursued by the Sydney Roosters. (Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images)

Both players are off contract at the end of 2024 and will command big deals to keep them in the game.

Indeed, Nawaqanitawase, who signed a one-year extension earlier this year, is already attracting attention from both the NRL and overseas clubs.

On Tuesday, the 23-year-old met with the Roosters, with the NRL powerhouse club on the hunt for another outside back to replace Suaalii once he leaves Moore Park at the end of next year.

It comes as the NRL entertains offering salary-cap exemptions to help clubs raid the rugby ranks.

The timing of the meeting could not have been more awkward for RA bosses, with Waugh spruiking the NSW Waratahs becoming the first Super Rugby franchise to agree to the governing body’s strategic alignment.

Waugh said the national body needed to not only become “fiscally responsible” but create a culture within the game to ensure they developed and retained its talent.

“I keep talking about being fiscally responsible because I think the game historically has spent more than we can afford,” Waugh said.

“Which is why I come back to what’s the environment that we’re creating to attract players, so it’s not just all about money.

“You don’t want to be attracting people just because of the money and then you don’t have the environment sorted out.

“We can’t ignore the fact that we’ve got athletes, not just rugby league targeting them, but you’ll have overseas clubs that will target them as well from a rugby perspective, and we need to ensure that we’re creating an environment that they want to be here and we’re filling stadiums and it’s a real buzz around the game that we’ve experienced previously. But we’re certainly not there right now.”

Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh says the day of throwing blank cheques at NRL players are over. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Asked whether that meant the days of throwing money at NRL players were over, Waugh highlighted Jorgensen’s ascension into the game, where he was signed with the Waratahs as a schoolboy and made the Wallabies’ World Cup squad in his debut season in professional rugby this year, as the perfect blueprint.

“Yeah,” said Waugh, who was on the RA board when the governing body signed Suaalii.

“That’s an absolute priority of mine is the pathways, which is my point around I don’t care if people playing the league and AFL and other sports, as long as they’re experiencing rugby and then we’re actually got a really clear pathway for those 15-16-17-year-olds to become Wallabies or Super Rugby players sooner than what they have historically.

“I think we’ve seen that, with Max coming straight out of school into the Waratahs. That’s sort of the journey that we’d like those top athletes to have.”

Pressed whether that meant an end to the pursuit of NRL players, Waugh added: “I just don’t think we need to.”

RA has a long history of signing players from the NRL, with former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones luring Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri and Mat Rogers to the game ahead of the 2003 World Cup.

As recently as September, RA offered fellow Roosters back-rower Angus Crichton a two-year deal to join the Western Force.

Initial reports of RA offering the star State of Origin forward a $1.6m, two-year deal proved false, with the deal less than half that figure.

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