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Is another league player really the answer for union?

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Roar Pro
31st July, 2019
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4579 Reads

Michael Cheika must have felt something like a desperate point guard throwing up a Hail Mary shot from halfway as the buzzer sounded when he picked up the phone to try and entice rugby league star Kalyn Ponga to rugby union.

It was a long shot, but no one on his team was going to admonish him for having a crack.

Cheika’s call was mostly lauded inside rugby circles, as many fans and commentators could see Ponga bringing his silky skills and no-fear approach to a Wallabies jersey. The thinking seemed to be that sometimes the long shots pay off the most.

Recently, much of the commentary in rugby union circles has been about trying to recoup the signatures of wayward rugby juniors who are receiving high praise in the NRL.

It mustn’t sit well to see players like Kalyn Ponga, Cameron Murray and Angus Crichton lighting up the State of Origin cauldron and receiving so much exposure while plying their trade for a different code.

In fact, on top of these high-profile names, NRL clubs seem to be securing more and more players that started in rugby union. Players like Joseph Suaalii and Lachlan Ilias went to the South Sydney Rabbitohs this year and there will eventually be a tug of war between the codes for talented female players like Millie Boyle, who did start originally in rugby league.

So far this strategy seems to be paying dividends for the NRL, and their clubs seem to show no signs of abating.

The question becomes whether the focus of Rugby Australia should be on trying to entice these big names back or trying to retain the talented juniors in the rugby pathways who seem to be heading to rugby league in record numbers.

K Ponga watches on

(AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

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Historically there has always been an interchange between the two codes, particularly in the backs, and many sports historians are right to point out that without the high-profile defection of rugby union star Dally Messenger in 1908, perhaps we wouldn’t have an NRL today.

In fact, when rugby league became professional and rugby union was still amateur, club administrators and coaches had a field day signing young rugby union prospects to their code on professional contracts, leaving rugby in a weakened position.

I see some parallels to today.

If the game doesn’t seriously look at its retention and professional pathways, rugby could find itself in a similar position again.

Rugby union in Australia is in a precarious position, with off-field controversies, fiscal pressures forcing the culling of professional sides and a lack of on-field success, particularly by the national team. These factors all paint a picture of a code that should be focusing on many other things before considering paying huge sums for rugby league players.

Much fanfare was made recently about the NSW Waratahs, backed by Rugby Australia, signing Parramatta Eels back-rower Tepai Moero in what was labelled a big win for rugby.

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Whilst Moeroa is a handy league player and former Australian Rugby Schoolboys rep, is he really the missing piece of a team that failed to even make the Super Rugby finals – especially when he isn’t even starting for the Eels at the moment?

If he is the silver bullet that rugby needs, why was he let go from rugby in the first place?

At a time when bad news seems to come at Rugby Australia like an inevitable king tide towards a sand castle, the good news of signing any rugby league player is welcome.

However, the Junior Wallabies making the final of the Under-20s World Rugby championship should be of a higher note, and serious thought and resources need to be put into how they can keep these players in the game – because it is guaranteed that NRL scouts will be surveying that squad like a lion surveys the savanna.

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It is no secret that Cheika loves rugby league players and has no compunction in pursuing their services for his squad. But the strategy of waiting until they become a household name in rugby league circles and then paying overs to lure them back to rugby and spinning it as some kind of coup is just managing failure.

Many rugby pundits have suggested a player like Angus Crichton would be a huge signing for rugby, though the reality is players like him and Cameron Murray may possibly be too far a reach considering that they are making representative teams and demanding big dollars.

Even if they may sometimes long for their blazer-wearing days, they and players like them seem to be doing great things in rugby league, so perhaps rugby needs a new approach as the code chases success… although it doesn’t hurt to pick up the phone every now and then to throw down a long shot.