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The NSW Waratahs have successfully diverted attention away from their slide down the Super 14 ladder with a flurry of major signings, Wallabies Luke Burgess and Drew Mitchell the latest stars to commit to the franchise.
Mitchell on Friday confirmed the worst-kept secret in Australian rugby when he announced he was leaving the Western Force at the end of the season to join the Waratahs.
His recruitment crowned a big week for the Tahs, who have also retained Burgess, skipper Phil Waugh and exciting young centre Rob Horne until after the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
The Waratahs’ joy, though, was more grim news for the Force, who were already reeling after Matt Giteau’s decision earlier this season to head home to Canberra to play with the Brumbies next year.
Mitchell admitted Giteau’s impending departure played a big part in his decision.
“Matt was obviously a big reason I came to Perth, so him leaving the club did have an impact,” he said.
“But I’ve said all along I’d base my decision on rugby and lifestyle. Obviously I had been assessing my future for quite some time, which indicates how much I’ve enjoyed it here in Perth for the past three years.
“I considered a range of factors and had very good offers from both the Force and the Waratahs.
“My decision was based very much on my personal circumstances and where I wanted to be.
“It wasn’t a financial decision.”
The 25-year-old, who has 29 Test caps to his credit, is likely to assume the fullback mantle at the Waratahs, replacing the Cardiff-bound Sam Norton-Knight.
Mitchell played 35 games for the Queensland Reds before making the move west in 2007.
But things turned sour when Mitchell lost hundreds of thousands of dollars when his third-party sponsor Firepower collapsed.
The Force will now turn their attention to trying to retain Wallabies No.8 Richard Brown, teenage sensation James O’Connor and scrumhalf Josh Valentine.
Winger Scott Staniforth and hooker Tai McIsaac have already confirmed they will venture to Japan at the end of the season, while flanker Tamaiti Horua will link up with Irish provincial side Ulster.
The players aren’t the only ones deserting the Force, with chief executive Greg Harris resigning earlier in the week to return home to Sydney – where Burgess is clearly also happy despite the Waratahs falling to sixth after back-to-back defeats.
“Knowing I’m signed up for another two years allows me to just concentrate on my footy and help to achieve the goals of both the Waratahs and Wallabies,” Burgess said.
The 25-year-old enjoyed a watershed 2008 season in which he won his first Wallabies cap in their opening international against Ireland in Melbourne after sparking the Waratahs’ run to the Super 14 final.
While a knee injury forced him out of the back half of the Tri Nations series, Burgess still finished the year with 11 Test appearances after starting in all four of the Wallabies’ spring tour internationals in Europe.
The Maitland-born Burgess entered Super rugby via the Brumbies, where he spent four seasons as George Gregan’s understudy, before linking with the Waratahs.
“The last year has been amazing,” he said.
“Coming up from Canberra, I was hoping things would change a bit and I’ve been lucky to achieve some success since getting an opportunity last year.”