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The Wrap: Truth proves elusive as Superman Suaalii saga rages on

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26th July, 2020
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Before “playing what’s in front of you” took over as rugby’s most annoying cliché, it was common for rugby scribes, feigning respect for their understanding of the dark arts, to describe a front rower who had done little of note in a match as “having toiled away honestly in the tight”.

An honest front rower? Yeah, pull the other one.

During an ugly first half at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Friday night, referee Angus Gardner blew up a phase of play, explaining to Waratahs and Rebels players, “it’s a mess.”

Now there goes an honest man.

Honesty has been in short supply in the media coverage of the tug of war for teenage sensation Joseph Suaalii. For those not up to speed, 16-year-old Suaalii has the build of a giraffe and the dash of a gazelle, and is red-hot property.

Name dropping Jarryd Hayne, Johnathan Thurston and James Tedesco, all of whom he saw as juniors, ex-Kiwi rugby league Test player and Sydney Western Suburbs-based coach Mark Horo described Suaalii as, “Superman… surpassing everything I have seen over the last 30 years.”

NRL star and England rugby union player Sam Burgess was another to heap praise, describing Suaalii’s talent as “unbelievable.”

Sam Burgess

Sam Burgess has is a fan of Joseph Suaalii. (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

Suaalii’s history – as much as any 16-year-old has a history – comprises excellence in both rugby league and rugby union, with both the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Rugby Australia claiming that theirs is his natural home.

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Where Suaalii lands will be revealed soon enough. Hopefully sooner than later, so that some of the nonsense that passes for rugby journalism might be put to bed.

The lead sports headline in The Weekend Australian trumpeted “Wallabies’ rage over $3m kid”, with reporter Jessica Halloran describing how “top Wallabies are furious that they have had to endure a contract freeze while a possible $3 million mega deal has been tabled to teenage prodigy Joseph Suaalii.”

Note the word “possible”. Since the matter first emerged, Rugby Australia has consistently denied that the amount offered to Suaalii is remotely near the reported $3 million. Writing in The Guardian, Bret Harris acknowledged those denials, yet proceeded regardless to pen a whole column around the premise, “how can a cash-strapped sport like rugby splash cash on a player who is not even old enough to vote?”

The fact is, they haven’t.

Far from being offered $3 million, Suaalii is considering an offer that would see him paid at a level below all currently contracted Wallabies.

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Unable to play in the NRL until he turns 18, Suaalii is attracted by the option of playing Super Rugby for the Waratahs, representing Australia the Olympic Games, and earning a little extra cash – all while still at school. He is keeping options for the future – and his big pay days – open.

What cash there is on offer comes from two sources: an in-budget fighting fund established by ex-CEO Raelene Castle, and a new emerging Wallabies fund, off-budget, initiated by donors through the Australian Rugby Foundation.

Former Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle

(Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Both funds are designed to protect and invest in the future of the Wallabies, by ensuring that there is a pool of money available to contract talented young schoolboy players who would otherwise be lost to rugby league.

Other players who have benefitted from donor funding include Kurtley Beale and Jordan Petaia. If such funding is not to be drawn down on for a player like Suaalii, what exactly is it supposed to be used for?

So why the insistence on reporting unsubstantiated, patently false numbers?

Halloran and other writers like to portray Australian rugby as continuing to lurch from crisis to crisis.

In this case, Halloran contends that the offer to Suaalii is unfair to “the next generation of superstars of the game, including the likes of (Jack) Maddocks, (Tom) Banks and (Tom) Wright.”

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Halloran quotes an unnamed agent, who says that the offer to Suaalii represents, “another point of contention for players who have sat patiently and respectfully for the good of the game and their fellow players.”

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Let’s be clear. Wright hasn’t been sitting patiently, he comes from rugby league. He, Maddocks and Banks are all talented players who may or may not add to their zero, seven and four Test caps respectively. Not one of them is a superstar.

The hypocrisy of writers who mercilessly attack and mock Australian rugby for its parlous state, on and off the field, to now claim that a potential once-in-a-generation player should be offered less than his market rate, be potentially lost to the game, and in the process, spurn an opportunity to improve the Wallabies, all because other players are in the queue ahead of him, is stupefying.

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Imagine NZ Rugby low-balling an offer for emerging excitement machine Will Jordan, all because David Havili has been waiting patiently and respectfully for his turn as All Black fullback? It wouldn’t happen, and we all know why.

Image Suaalii signing with Souths without Rugby Australia having made a serious play to retain him? What odds the same writers highlighting this as a damning failing of Rugby Australia, unwilling and unable to retain its own young talent?

Rugby Australia headquarters

(Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

That wasn’t the end of it. Suggesting that funds should be targeted towards locks instead of backs, Halloran pointed to Rugby Australia refusing to offer Izack Rodda a contract (Rodda was under contract, he chose to walk away), and Matt Philip being lost to France (he has a six-month contract with Pau, from January until June next year, and if selected, will miss very little if any Test rugby).

Harris asked, “why would you spend that amount of money on a winger anyway?” when even the most cursory internet search would have revealed that Suaalii is not a winger.

In the Daily Telegraph, Jamie Pandaram and Julian Linden claimed that in response to the reported signing of Suaalii, the NRL was conducting a “reverse poaching raid” by targeting Jordan Petaia.

This turned out to be nothing more than a representative from the Brisbane Broncos “reaching out to a family member to gauge his interest”, and another two unnamed NRL clubs “contacting either family members or associates of Petaia to see if he’s interested in making the switch next year.”

Not wholly convincing, but not enough to prevent the writers from concluding that if Rugby Australia is unable to pay Petaia’s full wage when the current arrangement ends on the 30th September, “expect him to seek an early release from his contract and switch codes.”

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Never one to miss an opportunity to attack head office, Alan Jones tied the “reckless pursuit of Suaalii” to director of rugby Scott Johnson, who “is scrambling to justify his four-year contract and has made a seriously bad judgment call. Again.”

Scott Johnson.

(Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Jones concluded his column with a curious statement extolling the honesty of his thoughts. Are we to take it that previous columns have been dishonest?

How does that reconcile with Jones criticising Rugby Australia, stating “the current $10 million broadcast deal will bring in one fifth of the budgeted television revenue”, without clarifying that this figure is for the domestic component only, and does not yet include any payment for Test rugby?

It would seem that the line between honesty and omission is a fuzzy one.

There was further irony in Souths coach Wayne Bennett stating that the expectation and pressure placed on Suaalii was “unfair” and “unhealthy”. Of itself that’s not an unreasonable position, except that Bennett didn’t have an answer when he was asked if there was anything the NRL could do to prevent pressure being placed on young players like Suaalii.

Perhaps not allowing NRL player agents and their representatives to line the side of school rugby union pitches in Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland, like a conga line of Bob Sugars, would be a good place to start?

Suaalii would needed to have been all of Superman, Spiderman and Batman to have saved the Waratahs on Friday night. After exceeding expectations since the resumption, the Waratahs were clumsy, insipid and ill-disciplined on their way to a 29-10 loss to the Rebels.

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In a season already notable for poor lineout execution, the home side took things to another level, unable to sustain possession and apply pressure for any lengthy period. There was little to enthuse fans, other than prop Harry Johnson-Holmes being outed for wearing what appeared to be a violet-coloured g-string.

Rebels coach Dave Wessels was justifiably proud of his inexperienced forward pack, three of whom have come through the Rebels’ own junior program, and the way in which they completely dominated the second half.

Head Coach Dave Wessels of the Rebels looks on

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

While they managed a record score for the franchise against the Waratahs, there will be concerns about not translating that dominance into more points. A clue was provided just before halftime, with Michael Hooper in the sin bin, and the Rebels having just taken the lead 19-10.

Instead of looking to turn the screws against an undermanned opponent, the Rebels chose not to have a crack, but to use 90 seconds to run down the clock. That’s a mindset that will have to change if they are to be a serious contender for the title.

Also running down the clock at halftime was Force fullback Jack McGregor, who instead of kicking the ball out from a penalty and the players going to a final lineout, stood on the mark for 30 seconds waiting for the siren before tapping to himself, kicking the ball dead and running off.

Here was another example of Australian rugby focusing on law variations to improve the product, when enforcement of existing laws would achieve the same thing. Referee Damon Murphy should have hurried McGregor along and ensured that the lineout was played, or else he should have awarded a free kick against him for time wasting.

The reason McGregor was in no hurry was that his side was shut out, 24-0, by a Brumbies side who in patches looked back to their best, particularly in a powerful opening blitz that delivered two slick, long-range tries to Tom Wright and Irae Simone.

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To the Force’s credit, their pack scrapped hard and they deserved more than the scoreboard gave them. But missing skipper Ian Prior, veteran Nick Frisby was ponderous at halfback, doing an off-colour playmaker Jono Lance no favours.

Jono Lance playing for the Western Force

(Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

A win remains elusive for now, but as long as their forward pack continues to front up and compete hard, their day is not far away.

It was business as usual in New Zealand – another weekend and yet another set of thrillers, as the Hurricanes ended the Crusaders’ run of four years without a home defeat, 34-32, and the Blues hung on by the skin of Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s half-dunny brush haircut to hold out the Chiefs by 21-17.

It was always going to take a special effort for somebody to win in Christchurch, and the Hurricanes delivered the three key elements required for the upset: extreme line speed on defence checking the Crusaders’ phase play, playing positively when they had the ball, and superb goal kicking from Jordie Barrett.

Despite the loss it was the home side who delivered the individual highlight of the match. Brilliant interplay from Sevu Reece and Bryn Hall opened up the backfield for George Bridge to finish in unconventional style.

It looked at first like a lucky bounce, but check the replay again. Bridge never broke stride and knew exactly what he was doing, taking the ball on the half volley with his left foot, weighting his touch perfectly, and beating Barrett on the angle.

At 14-0 the Blues looked the goods early, but the Chiefs hung tough and came within a fumbled cross-kick and a blade of grass of snatching the win at the death. So, another tough day for coach Warren Gatland, and while he wouldn’t be upset with the effort, his team seems to have forgotten how to win.

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Not so the Blues, who drew an impressive 33,000 fans to Eden Park, many of whom would have been delighted to see Beauden Barrett back in the ten jersey and more involved in the play.

Meanwhile, prop Alex Hodgman toiled away honestly in the tight.