There’s been hysteria regarding players signing overseas after the 2015 Rugby World Cup. There is the perception that Australia is losing more players than ever to overseas, and the players are younger and better.
It’s hard to get a good view of things over a short sample period. So in order to look at this, I’ve reviewed our past Wallabies and what they are doing now, or did upon leaving Australia.
To begin with are players who represented the Wallabies after the 2007 Rugby World Cup, up to and including the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and where are they now. In this cycle 62 players represented the Wallabies.
Of these, five retired by the end of 2012 (Al Baxter, Dan Vickerman, Matt Dunning, Phil Waugh and Sam Cordingly) and a further two ended up in the NRL (Lote Tuqiri and Timana Tahu).
Eight ended up plying their trade in overseas leagues: two in Japan (George Smith and Hugh McMeniman), one in England (Huia Edmonds), and five in France (Josh Valentine, Luke Burgess, Mark Chisholm, Matt Giteau and Ryan Cross).
So did we have a post-2011 World Cup exodus? Hardly. We lost almost as many players to retirement as we did to overseas leagues.
In addition, players like Huia (five Caps in 2010 only) and Josh Valentine (four Caps in 2009 and one cap in 2010) were unlikely to receive further caps, and that formed part of their decision. George Smith, Matt Giteau and Luke Burgess were the only players considered to be match-day certainties in that period. Considering their ages (30, 28 and 29) when they departed, being in the twilight of their careers could also have been a factor. In addition Ryan Cross had competition from Adam Ashley-Cooper for Stirling Mortlock’s 13 jersey, and lacking the same versatility would have at best found himself only a squad player.
The only players we lost in their prime were Burgess and Chisholm. Chisholm had played a number of Tests and while a good Super Rugby player, was behind James Horwill and Nathan Sharpe in the pecking order, with Dan Vickerman returning and Rob Simmons coming through. He again was not guaranteed a spot in a first-choice Wallaby squad.
Giteau’s form had been on the decline since his peak in 2008, where he was one of our most influential players. Since then a number of other players had come through the ranks and unfortunately Matt had never been an international standard flyhalf for much more than that one season. Furthermore, his style of play was not really suited to 12 given the options we had at 10.
Losing players like this, and George Smith who at 30 had played over 100 Tests, is inevitable as they feel they have done everything they can in their careers and look for a different experience.
So how does this compare to after the 2015 Rugby World Cup?
In the three seasons from 2012 to 2014 we had 70 players pull on the Wallaby jersey – well up from the four-year period before that, and it’s this number could actually climb to 75 by the end of the World Cup with fringe players like Tom English, Kyle Godwin, Siliva Siliva, Caydern Neville and others showing potential having previously been part of Wallaby squads.
Only three of these Wallabies have retired since the 2011 World Cup: Nathan Sharpe (2012), Dan Palmer (2014) and Pat McCabe (2014). In addition to this, none have gone to the NRL.
At the beginning of February 2015, 17 of these 70 players will be playing overseas in 2016 (ages at end of final Super Rugby season in brackets): Adam Ashley-Cooper (31, France), Ben Mowen (30, France), Berrick Barnes (27, Japan), Brendan McKibbin (30, England), Brett Sheehan (34, England), Cooper Vuna (25, Japan), Digby Ioane (28, France), Drew Mitchell (29, France), George Smith (33, Japan), Hugh McMeniman (31, Japan), James Horwill (30, England), Kane Douglas (25, Ireland), Nic White (25, France), Scott Higginbotham (29, Japan), Sekope Kepu (29, France), Sitaleki Timani (27, France), and Will Genia (27, France).
I have not included returning players like Radike Samo and Nick Cummins in this list, but I have not excluded short-term returns from players on the previous list like McMeniman and Smith either.
What needs to be considered is the context of these numbers. In my view we lost two players that we should have kept after the 2011 Rugby World Cup. How many players will be under 29 when they depart at the end of this season, or when they departed?
Berrick Barnes was 27 when he left in 2013. Cooper Vuna was 25 when he left in 2013. Digby Ioane was 28 when he left in 2013. Kane Douglas was 25 when he left in 2014. Sitaleki Timani was 27 when he left in 2013. Nic White will be 25 when he leaves this season and Will Genia will be 27 when he leaves.
So we have lost five players in their prime who were regular match-day 23 players (Barnes, Ioane, Timani, White and Genia). Considering that White and Genia shared the reserve halfback spot, it’s not unexpected to lose one of them – the one who appears to be least favoured by the coach. It is not ideal to lose both though.
Sekope Kepu is the biggest loss. He has for the past two seasons been our best, and preferred tighthead prop. At 29 this year, perhaps he is expecting this to be his last contract. Most would say that props mature later, however how many great Australian props have peaked into their 30s? I’ve seen more cases of highly rated props having their international careers ended by poor form and penalties (Baxter and Dunning for example), so we shouldn’t just assume by virtue of age he will automatically improve.
Where does this leave us? Yes there has been an increase in players going to the Northern Hemisphere since 2011. Has it reached alarming levels? Not exactly from a Wallaby point of view. How many players have we lost that were first choice players in their position? One. And he is 29 years old.
While it would be ideal to keep all these players, there just is not any economic benefit in paying for players you don’t intend to play.
When we look back further, does this change?
Excluding players already discussed, the following players moved to the Northern Hemisphere after the 2007 World Cup:
David Lyons (2008, Wales)
Jeremy Paul (2007, England)
Sam Cordingly (2008, France)
Mark Gerrard (2010, Japan)
Stephen Larkham (2008, Japan)
Chris Latham (2008, England)
Scott Staniforth (2010, Japan)
George Gregan (2007, France)
In addition to these players, we lost the following Wallabies in the four-year lead-up, or immediately after:
Mark Bartholomeusz (2004, England)
Daniel Heenan (2007, Japan)
Radike Samo (2006, France)
Matt Henjak (2004, England)
Al Campbell (2008, France)
Lloyd Johansson (2008, Italy)
Lachlan McKay (2008, France)
David Fitter (2006, England)
Rodney Blake (2008, France)
Joe Roff (2005, Japan)
Owen Finegan (2005, England)
Matt Cockbain (2004, Wales)
Toutai Kefu (2004, Japan)
Nathan Grey (2005, Japan)
Chris Whittaker (2006, Ireland)
Andrew Walker (2006, France via NRL)
Justin Harrison (2005, Ireland)
So in the context of the past, are we losing a lot of our Wallabies? I’d argue no more than previously.
The fact that immediately following the 2007 Rugby World Cup we lost 11 Wallabies (Lyons, Paul, Cordingly, Larkham, Latham, Gregan, Heenan, Campbell, McKay, Blake, Johansson) shows we have had large groups of players depart previously.
In the period after the 2003 World Cup we had already lost 12 players.
To put that into context, we have now lost 17 Wallabies of the last four years, out of a pool of 175 professional players in Australia.
From the 2003 Rugby World Cup we lost 12 recent players out of a pool of 105 professional players, and immediately following the 2007 Rugby World Cup we lost recent 11 players out of a pool of 140 professional players.
So is this a new problem? No. Australian players have been going overseas for as long as teams have paid players to player.
Is this problem getting significantly worse? Not really. In the context of the player pool it has probably dropped a little.
Are we losing all of our best players all of a sudden? Not really. The cases of losing players we really want over other options to keep are still rare. Compare this to the 2007 Rugby World Cup team. Within 12 months we had lost eight players who were in our best match-day team when fit and available in the 2007 Test season (Paul, Cordingly, Larkham, Latham, Gregan, Vickerman, Elsom, Lyon). Now that’s an exodus if you ask me.
Perhaps there isn’t as much need for the hysterics some want us to believe.