I love a headline. I love an opinion piece. I may not agree with them all – in fact, some are complete fabrication just for clicks.
“Wallabies in code switch bid to star Ponga”
“Ponga bombshell: Wallabies plan to poach NRL star”
“Hands off Ponga”
“Forget Folau, Latrell Mitchell could spark a rugby revolution”
But at the time of these headlines and quotes, from both union and league, Rugby Australia and other rugby advocates weren’t championing the performances of the Junior Wallabies (Australia U20s for those of us from the Northern Hemisphere).
Prior to the tournament, currently being hosted in Argentina, the young Aussies had won a maiden Oceania Championship, with a dominant display against the ‘Baby Blacks’ (NZ U20s), winning 24-0.
In Argentina, the same group has shown quality and grit in equal measure, dispatching Italy (36-12), an Ireland team that had just beat England (45-17), and just being pipped by England (56-33) – playing 78 minutes of the match with just 14 men after an early dismissal.
On to the semi-finals, the Junior Wallabies faced the hosts, and Los Pumitas (can we seriously stop with the ridiculous names now?) went into halftime having just been awarded a penalty try and Australia down to 14 for the remainder.
Without Michael McDonald playing 9, Australia ran out 34-13 winners, with two unanswered tries and a penalty stretching the lead, and will play Saturday’s final against current champions France.
So there are already green shoots of this group being called a golden generation. Of how these players are a vindication of the new pathway system that RA put in place last year.
That isn’t the reason.
It is pure luck that a talented group of players has committed the first few years of their careers to the code, rejecting advances from NRL teams to pursue Wallaby gold rather than Kangaroo green.
This group – containing the spawn of former Wallabies such as Mark Bell and Brendan Nasser, guys who have rejected NRL advances, children of expats, and some that have come through pathways in the less traditionally rugby-mad states – have managed to be grouped together and given an opportunity to develop.
A fair number of players still represent NSW and Queensland but the real evidence of progress is the number of players who have come through pathways in Western Australia, ACT and Victoria. These pathways were established in line with Super Rugby franchises, which could be why there are a good number of Victoria rep players who have been exposed to a professional environment with the Rebels.
The risk is that the pathway in Western Australia has been culled with the expulsion of the Force from Super Rugby, but the Force’s continued existence in whatever form does provide a glimmer of hope – and the NRC provides a decent showcase for players from less traditional areas.
What I am trying to emphasise here is that Rugby Australia, the Super Rugby franchises, the Wallabies and all pathway coaches should not sit back and claim this group is evdience that what is currently in place is working. There needs to be an active recruitment, retention and development program that is ever evolving to ensure that this group does not become a one off.
The 2020 Super Rugby season could be the perfect opportunity for RA to push these players on to coaches, making it clear these young men need game time to develop.
It will not do them any good sitting in the stands for another two years, acting as tackle-pad holders, then come into a team. These players must be provided opportunities alongside those who are slightly older, providing good, young, rotation options.
This is where rugby league comes in.
Let’s put to bed the pursuit of NRL stars who could come in on big money, spend a year or two (re)learning the code, be thrown a rep jersey, then leave in another couple of years.
Rugby Australia should secure this current crop of young players to long-term, incentive-driven contracts, with salaries incrementally increasing year-on-year depending on development.
This could provide greater returns than the NRL option and cost less. Plus, it gives these young Australians the opportunity to develop together, to become poster-boys and accrue the 60 caps required to circumvent the Giteau Law.
But what if the leaguies want to switch codes?
Fine. They are more than welcome. They can either come across on an incentivised deal (similar to U20 players) and be handsomely rewarded from their quality if proven, or they can go to France. Learn the game there and then come back home for a chance at Wallaby selection.
There could also be an opportunity for RA to keep an eye on NRL academies and recapture young players from union backgrounds, as long as RA and Super Rugby can provide clear progression opportunities. This is what the NRL teams do.
This is RA’s time to press the reset button properly – not just think about it, talk about it, put forward how it could work, then ultimately do nothing.
There will likely be a mass exodus of senior Wallabies after the World Cup, and 2020 is an opportunity to provide a clear trajectory to grow rugby in Australia.