Before I kick off, I need to offer two important caveats.
Firstly I need to direct everyone to comments from Rugby Australia’s CEO pouring cold water on reports that Joseph Suaalii has already signed. It is highly possible this entire story is the manifestations of a conniving sports agent.
Secondly, I have barely watched this kid play. I have seen his Australian Schoolboys game against NZ and I’ve seen some highlights on YouTube, but other than that I’m relying on a lot of hearsay evidence to vouch for his calibre.
But with that said, shelling out millions for a kid like Suaalii is a necessary evil for Rugby Australia, and needs to be seen in the incomparable context that rugby union finds itself in Australia.
If a kid of Suaalii’s obvious natural talents began to emerge in any other rugby-playing nation, maybe with the exception of the USA, he would be growing up dreaming exclusively of rugby union.
Certainly England and NZ also have to consider losing their juniors to rugby league scouts from time to time but neither exist entirely within the shadows of a competing billion-dollar domestic league like rugby union in Australia does.
The NRL is littered with young stars who were Australian rugby union juniors – a depressing list of impressive athletes that we will never see in Wallaby gold because Rugby Australia either simply wouldn’t, or perhaps more likely couldn’t, find the money to throw at teenagers the way our rugby league cousins do.
For all of the criticisms thrown at Raelene Castle, she committed an unprecedented amount of her time in securing the future Wallabies of our game. We are immediately at a disadvantage as 15 Australian NRL clubs can offer a pathway to a lucrative first-grade contract. Rugby union, meanwhile, has only five professional outfits with an almost non-existent second tier that would satisfy any ultra-competitive young player.
There are people decrying the fact that any money spent on Suaalii isn’t spent on grassroots rugby, but what if Suaalii is our grassroots? He is a junior rugby product. It could be argued that Rugby Australia helped make him what he is. What use is investing in grassroots if rugby league can harvest our fields at will.
The reality is, Rugby Australia has to sell a product. To those already watching, we can be excited about Hunter Paisami and Tom Banks being listed in the team sheets, but a kid like Suaalii – who is already a headline at 17 – has the potential to bring fans to the game.
If he is what they say he is, then people will tune in just to see him play. If he is what they say he is, then young kids will want to play rugby just to be like him. If he is what they say he is, then maybe he will help the Wallabies win more games.
It is a big if, but the fact is Rugby Australia is playing a high-stakes game for its survival.
This could be the gamble it has to take.