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Operation McMahon: How Aussie rugby can keep its cattle

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Roar Rookie
19th July, 2021
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4534 Reads

At the risk of telling the same story that billions of Aussie rugby fans have told the morning after a big Wallabies loss at Eden Park, let me name a hypothetical team of Australian rugby players currently contracted with clubs overseas and who are thus not eligible for Wallabies selection.

1. Les Makin
2. Tolu Latu
3. Ollie Hoskins
4. Will Skelton
5. Rory Arnold
6. Jack Dempsey
7. Liam Gill
8. Sean McMahon
9. Ryan Louwrens
10. Isaac Lucas
11. Taqele Naiyaravoro
12. Samu Kerevi
13. Billy Meakes
14. Luke Morahan
15. Jesse Mogg

The purpose of naming this team, of course, is to illustrate the quantity of Australian talent that could be available in an ideal world to represent our Super Rugby clubs and the Wallabies.

To be as realistic as possible I’ve avoided naming players who already served their fair share of time in Australian rugby and have moved overseas for the tail end of their careers.

Players that fit this description who come to mind include Sekope Kepu, Scott Fardy, Scott Higginbotham, Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale.

An interesting point is that many of these sorts of players signed short contracts overseas in the middle of their careers including Higginbotham, Cooper and Beale, and played good rugby either side of this stint.

Whilst COVID-19 may temporarily plug the drain of Australian rugby players to Japan and Europe in search of lucrative playing contracts, international travel is gradually opening back up and as time goes on apprehension and fear will dissolve in favour of the lure of the Euro and the Yen.

I don’t begrudge players for this and frankly am not a fan of bagging professional athletes from behind the computer screen for any reason.

Everyone understands the nature of a rugby player’s finite number of years in their prime and their obligations to their family to utilise this time effectively. Players need be concerned about their life after retiring from the sport, and there are only so many jobs available in commentary, of which vacancies don’t seem to open up too often.

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Of course, these players are only human as well, and one can’t blame any of them for finding appealing the thought of relocating overseas for an extended period of time to a new country while playing rugby to experience a different lifestyle, just like how many businessmen around the world relocate abroad to work in a new environment and usually for greater income.

Will Genia

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

I don’t believe that Rugby Australia is naïve of these conflicting interests held by every player it employs. What I do think is that they could actually use these to their advantage.

The market forces moderate the distribution of rugby talent around the world according to supply and demand. Unfortunately, demand by Australia for the rugby product macroscopically does not correspond with the supply of players.

In fact, demand in overseas markets outweighs that derived from the Australian population and hence French, British and Japanese clubs are able to outbid the Tahs, Reds, Brums, Rebels and Force for player contracts.

Demand for rugby will not increase in the short term. Only improvements in on-field results and the management of the game that allow it to better compete with the AFL and rugby league will help to increase demand for rugby, increase revenue from professional fixtures and pay our top players enough money to stay in Australia for longer.

How many locally produced players lost to overseas clubs is too many? How young must an Australian player be when signing a contract with an overseas club to constitute as too young?

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Australian rugby wrestles with the problem of sustaining and improving a domestic competition while driving greater performances from the Wallabies. If it abstains from selecting its best players who may have signed higher paying contracts overseas, the national team may not achieve the best results it can in the short term.

But it’s a slippery slope, and if it opens the floodgates too wide without the exclusive incentive of Wallabies representative opportunities, the cost to the domestic competition may be irreparable. A decline in the quality of the domestic competition may have a flow on effect to the local pathways causing huge long term damage to the game in this country.

Therefore, in the interests of easing the financial burden of retaining the top players in Super Rugby, while also facilitating the best possible results for the Wallabies by allowing for selection of the best players, without depleting the local playing stock, Rugby Australia should rethink their contracting and better align their interests with their players.

A new type of player contract would allow current and fringe Wallabies to sign lucrative contracts with clubs overseas.

Not only this, but it would allow them to play for the Wallabies if they were in form. The difference is that within the contract would be a guarantee for the player to return to their Australian club after a predetermined overseas stay of roughly one or two years.

Players eligible for this contract would be those who have played for at least a certain number of years in Australian rugby, perhaps six. They don’t have to have played for the Wallabies in this time in my opinion because the key point is that they have agreed to return to their Super Rugby club after one or two years.

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Due to the aforementioned reasons it is natural for players to seek opportunities in competitions abroad for reasons of financial gain and personal growth and in many cases this outweighs the lure of the Wallabies jersey.

Australian rugby should help players to scratch this itch if they wish to do so by implementing medium term contracts with a guarantee to return to Australian rugby, after a season or in some cases two seasons overseas. This will overall be to the benefit of Australian rugby.

By allowing players to take “playing sabbaticals” or “exchanges” Rugby Australia will be able to control the flow of its talent overseas.

David Pocock

(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Furthermore, by inviting top players to make extended stays at overseas clubs, Rugby Australia can use the budgets of rich Japanese and French to pay the wages of its elite players and Wallabies in the trust of their long term commitment to Australian rugby.

This contract may be able to prevent a promising young wallaby from signing an indefinite contract overseas and instead lead them to sign a contract of finite length with the guarantee to return home after some time in a new environment to rejuvenate mentally and rediscover lost form.

A number of players have benefitted from time abroad such as a recent example in Andrew Kellaway. Maybe a change in scenery could be of benefit to players looking to move overseas who are not in the same form that earned them their reputation in the first place such as Jack Dempsey. A contract guaranteeing them to return after some time would ensure they are not lost to Australian rugby forever.

Of particular interest is the career of 27-year-old Matt Phillip. After a shaky 2020 where Phillip was a shining light in a Wallabies team lean on depth and even leaner on wins. It appeared all hope was lost when he signed on for a stint overseas with French club Pau, however news soon followed that he sought an opportunity overseas to improve his tight forward play in the more attritional French competition with full intentions to return home and bolster the Wallabies squad.

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In a similar vein, even the Wallabies captain Michael Hooper left Australian rugby for dead in its darkest days during the COVID-19 pandemic, signing with Toyota in Japan for a season in the Japanese Top League, while in his absence his Waratahs fell to their first ever winless season.

However, this narrative, commonly perpetuated by Queenslanders, neglects the fact that Hooper timed his overseas sabbatical during this period to ease the financial pressure on Rugby Australia during the economic recession. This is not to mention, of course, Hooper’s loyalty to Australian rugby since 2010 during which time he has probably played more minutes than any other player in the country.

Michael Hooper captained the Wallabies against France

Michael Hooper in action against France. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

In both of these cases, players have timed their own overseas contracts with the best interests of not only their own personal experience and development in mind but also the best interests of Australian rugby overall.

As a mere Wallabies fan who has observed the vigour with which the Wallabies defended their own line against the French this series, it comes as no surprise that its players are committed to the team’s cause and the team’s success.

So with these contract guarantees, Australian rugby can reward its high performing players with the chance to pursue short opportunities abroad, enriching their personal lives and being exposed to a different style of rugby with the agreement to return to Australia.

With this system in place, Australian rugby will be able to convert some of its Rory Arnolds, Luke Morahans and Sean McMahons from talented journeymen into Wallabies stalwarts. It allows the players to exercise their right to ply their trade overseas and experience a different style of rugby and culture.

In exchange for the players’ loyalty, there is a greater chance for them to spent the majority of their career in Australian rugby, even if this career is split into two halves either side of a stay overseas.

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Of course, complications may arise due to clashes between the international calendar and some of the European competitions however overall the concept is certainly achievable. Even this year, Matt Phillip and Michael Hooper have both returned from France and Japan respectively to play for the Wallabies.

This type of contract essentially shifts Rugby Australia’s investment into a player, the contract, from a short term investment horizon into a medium or long term investment horizon.

Of course, the bigger picture is to increase the proportion of a player’s entire career that is actually spent playing in Australia.

It is inevitable that most players will seek opportunities overseas at some point and my proposition of these contract guarantees actually helps support players to do this in the best interests of Australian rugby.

A contract with this condition in place would improve the transparency in contract negotiation between Rugby Australia and its players and would help to get the best of both worlds of managing the domestic game. The contract would help maintain the quality of the Super Rugby squads by allowing for the control of flow of rugby talent out of Australia by timing deserving players’ overseas stints in small batches.

It would also increase standards within the Wallabies squad by allowing for some overseas players who have committed to returning to Australian rugby to be selected, giving the national coach a greater pool of talent to select from.

This contract really does take the best of both worlds from either side of the Wallabies eligibility debate. It gives Australian rugby the ability to moderate the amount of its talent playing overseas at any one time. Obviously there will still be players who move overseas forever however this contract gives Australian rugby far more leverage.

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A further point is that through increasing formalisation of player contracts to cooperative overseas clubs could lead to the explicit creation of relationships between Super Rugby clubs and clubs overseas. These relationships could establish regular intervals where players head overseas.

An example where this has already occurred is with the Reds announcing an “alliance” with the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan, no doubt a product of the close bond between respective head coaches Brad Thorn and Robbie Deans.

This agreement will incorporate player and coach exchanges and an overall combined effort to high performance and improvement between the two clubs to help facilitate exactly the type of smart player contracting I have described.

If a club is already attempting to construct such a scenario, why not apply the model to all clubs and invest in the game’s future?

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