Izack Rodda, Harry Hockings and Isaac Lucas’ decision to refuse the Australia-wide COVID-19-related player pay cut, thus igniting a chain of events leading to the cancellation of their Queensland Reds contracts, is a situation that demands action from Rugby Australia.
Rodda leaving due to disappointment over missing the Reds captaincy is sad, but having given good service at the Reds and Wallabies over nearly four seasons, his decision calls for understanding.
Queensland rugby has, however, barely begun to recover the substantial investment made to develop Hockings and Lucas, which makes their naked self interest when so many are challenged by the COVID-19 crisis unforgivable.
Their manager Anthony Picone may have been advising them, but Hockings and Lucas are ultimately responsible for their decisions. A lot has been made of their relatively young age of 21 years old and the suggestion that Picone may not have advised them well, but in reality they are grown men who should accept the consequences of their decisions.
They have let down the rugby community in the clubs and schools that nurtured their careers, not even being willing to tolerate the same temporary pay cut that all of their mates have, in order to give a bit of joy back through their rugby during a tough time for all. This is despite the fact that their age and luck in the genetic lottery virtually assures them of a financial future that most Queenslanders can only dream of, if the players play their part.
Picone’s agency website makes it quite clear that a significant part of his business is about taking players from Australian and New Zealand, and getting them hired in Japan and Europe. All that is missing is directional arrows on the map.
That is fine when Picone limits his agency to finding overseas placements for players who have given back a reasonable amount of time back to the community that developed them. However, if he poaches players like Hockings, Lucas and previously Campbell Magnay, who have only just begun to generate a return for Queensland’s investment, the Queensland rugby community might ask itself why make the effort?
Queensland has produced more new Wallabies than any other state in the last five years and has heavily emphasised developing young players, so it is also in Rugby Australia’s interest to ensure that this effort is worth Queensland’s while. A statement by Picone in response to the dispute is illuminating with regards to what Rugby Australia can do to help.
“It would be wise for the Reds and RA to maintain amicable relationships with these players,” he said. “The future is uncertain, but we should always have as many players in the tent as possible. South Africa have jumped the gun on us in this space and they won the World Cup with a unified squad selected from all around the world.”
Picone’s mention of the Wallabies suggests that he wants to keep the option open for his clients to play for the national team, at least in the minds of the players themselves, thus allaying any misgivings that they may have about closing the door to that opportunity.
Where he is wrong is in using the South African example, because none of the World Cup-winning South African squad were uncapped 21-year-olds like Hockings and Lucas. The Boks’ youngest player, Damien Willemse, was 22 but had played 30 Super Rugby games since 2017 before starting with Saracens in England in 2019, and was capped with the Boks in 2018. He was considerably more experienced and valuable than the two Reds.
While raw talents like Hockings and Lucas are important to Australian rugby, they are not important enough to allow them to compromise the development pathways in Queensland and other Australian states. This is why Rugby Australia should make it abundantly clear that a return of service of say four seasons from their first Super Rugby cap should be required of players before leaving Australian rugby without the consent of their current team.
If a player leaves anyway, he should be made permanently ineligible for Wallabies selection. Consequently, if a player who has left wishes to return to Australian rugby, he could only ever come back as a journeyman, with no prospect of a RA top-up. Also, any opportunity to increase their market value overseas by playing for the Wallabies would be lost.
By backing the state unions on this matter, Rugby Australia would be giving such players pause for thought before cutting and running without having paid their dues to their community. It would also would help secure great Australian player development pathways like Queensland for the future of Aussie rugby.