The recent move by the Australian Rugby Union to allow players who sign long-term contracts to be able to explore short-term overseas opportunities has been a long time coming.
Even though they will not come in to effect until 2016, these ‘flexible contracts’ are a huge step in the right direction for the future of rugby in Australia.
I’m not a one club man, nor would you call me a journeyman. In my time as a professional rugby player, I have been at a total of three different clubs.
These days it’s not uncommon for individuals to spend time at a number of clubs, as lucrative contracts and opportunities to explore international options are too enticing to turn down.
Many people have a major issue with those who choose to take advantage of rugby’s profound international presence, and question where loyalty has gone in the game.
These people are not looking at the bigger picture. The benefits for the development of rugby across the globe, and at home, are far more valuable than the many euros being pocketed by our biggest stars.
The flexible contracts will hopefully help us keep a hold of our brightest stars, such as Michael Hooper and Israel Folau, which is paramount in developing the younger generation of Australia’s rugby fraternity. It also is a positive step financially, as advertisers, media companies and sponsors are much more likely to back rugby in Australia when the most marketable players are being held onto.
This is all before we reach the on-field benefits. Allowing players to venture abroad gives them a chance to experience a new culture, but more importantly a different style of rugby than they are used to.
Approaching a World Cup year, having as many players who have experienced playing in both hemispheres, in all sorts of conditions, as well as playing with and against other international players week-in, week-out rather than once every few years, means entering the competition the best prepared possible.
It’s easy for us living here in Australia to only focus on what the landmark ARU move will do for Australian rugby – building the younger generation and perhaps giving us a better chance to get our blooming hands on the Bledisloe Cup!
Having spent some years in Europe, I have seen the impact Southern Hemisphere signings make in their adopted countries, both on and off the field.
While at Ulster in Belfast, I was fortunate enough to share the field with South Africa’s Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller, as well as John Afoa and Jared Payne of New Zealand. Selling tickets for home matches was never a problem when these guys were on the team sheet, and the increased younger generation present in the stands meant that participation in rugby at the grassroots level was finally reaching the heights set by the historically stronger provinces of Munster and Leinster.
There were always those few fans who saw only what was on the surface, labelling foreign players a waste of money whenever they made a mistake or failed to reach their ultimate potential in crucial games. But if these ‘fans’ were to attend training sessions and look at the busy schedules of the higher profile players, they’d see that away from the field they didn’t just have their feet up on the couch, counting their wads of cash.
When foreign stars sign lucrative contracts, they are aware of the many requirements attached, and that their legacy will be equally based on what they do off the field as on it.
They are required to play a role in the community, raising the profile of rugby, and increasing participation at all levels. This is even more important in developing rugby nations such as Japan, who are due to to host the 2019 World Cup.
There has already been a huge influx of Southern Hemisphere involvement in both Japan’s coaching and playing ranks, which has seen an increased interest from locals and media companies. Plus this has improved the current crop of Japanese rugby stars, with Shota Horie of the Melbourne Rebels an example of the Asian nation’s talent.
Following the moves made by nations such as South Africa and Ireland in recent years to allow their players to venture abroad and still be eligible for international selection, it was crucial that Australia followed suit.
There is the question of why wait until 2016 to make this available, particularly given league and AFL also offer lucrative contracts, which are enticing for players. However what these codes don’t have is the international exposure of rugby, the cultural experience available, or the potential to win an Olympic medal, with rugby to be included in the Rio Games.
These short-term contracts give players the chance to explore all options safe in the knowledge that the gold jersey, that’s the pinnacle of their career, is not lost forever if they choose to leave our shores.