Joseph Suaalii has naturally attracted the headlines over the past week following his mega three-year deal with Rugby Australia.
The widely held view is that Suaalii will succeed on the rugby field, but debate has raged as to whether RA’s precious finances could have been better used by locking up the next generation of schoolboy talent or, indeed, the grassroots and women’s game.
Former Wallabies Morgan Turinui and Stephen Hoiles both took the stance that to grow the game, you have to invest in the best players.
Others fear RA will lose some of its current players or have to pay considerably more to keep hold of current stars after Suaalii blew open the market.
Current Wallabies backs Mark Nawaqanitawase and Jordan Petaia, both of whom are in their early 20s and are expected to get better and better, will both be off contract at the end of 2024. Will they ask RA to double their own deals?
Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan, who drove Suaalii’s signing and was the key player in getting Eddie Jones back as Wallabies coach, said aspiring Wallabies would be well remunerated.
“We fully expect to pay our players better than the NRL and probably the AFL for that matter,” McLennan told the ABC.
“So if you’re that good, we’ll look after you and we want our players to retire rich and be successful and have careers outside of rugby.
“Look, it’s a free market and anyone’s entitled to play wherever they want. But our guys do very well. We had a tough time during COVID, but all codes had that, but it’s a new day for RA and if you’re a young kid and you want to play well and do well, we’ll look after you over the long term.”
McLennan said what had been lost in Suaalii’s headline signing was that his arrival would help drive “ratings, commercial revenue, better on-field performance” and lead to more people going out to the game, particularly with private equity on the doorstep of Rugby Australia and feature events on the horizon.
Meanwhile, some have also criticised RA’s active pursuit on rugby league.
So how is Rugby Australia’s player retention going?
The Roar has investigated the current contract status of every player from Dave Rennie’s 44-man training squad in January.
Bearing that in mind, Jones will have different ideas on the futures of Australian rugby’s playing group.
For instance, Suliasi Vunivalu, who wasn’t named, has re-signed with Queensland and could feature for the Wallabies. James O’Connor is understood to have re-signed, too. Max Jorgensen, meanwhile, is contracted until 2024 and RA is already seeking to extend his deal. While the Rebels are hoping Pone Fa’amausili, who wasn’t named either, extends his deal beyond 2023.
World Rugby’s most experienced international coach will name his first training squad on Sunday.
It’s understood no more than 35 players will be invited while no foreign-based players will be included.
Just which injured players are included, too, remains to be seen. While Taniela Tupou is thought to be a certainty, others like Angus Bell and Matt Philip are no guarantee.
The futures of four current players, including the incumbent Wallabies captain James Slipper, remain firmly in the balance.
Star Brumbies duo Nic White and Slipper have yet to re-sign.
The issue remains largely over their age and future in the Wallabies beyond this year’s World Cup.
Slipper and White will be 34 and 33 respectively by mid-June and both are unlikely to feature in the home World Cup in 2027. But can they play a role against the British and Irish Lions?
White is itching to be involved and, on current form, is the first-choice Wallabies No.9 despite Tate McDermott’s attacking threat.
White said he wanted to be involved in the Lions campaign in 2025.
“Yeah, bloody oath mate,” he told The Roar.
“Can’t you hear the excitement in my voice over the next five years how good it’ll be here.
“Mate, of course I want to be here. That’s massive. That Lions series can be won or lost off one moment. It was Justin Harrison way back and it was probably Leigh Halfpenny’s boot or a miskick last time they were out, so it can be one moment that can win that series.
“It’s such a big series and yeah, I’d love to be a part of it. Obviously, there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before then. But how exciting and it’s pretty exciting to have a guy like Joseph come over and throw his hat in the ring for that.”
The Brumbies are desperate to retain both players, believing both can play roles for the Wallabies going forward. They also believe they can play pivotal roles in nurturing the development of the next generation of props and halves.
It’s understood neither want to head overseas either, with White having spent five years abroad.
Harry Wilson is the biggest risk of heading overseas.
Wilson’s camp wants him to become the face of the Queensland Reds and a leader. The Reds want him to stay, too.
But is the money there? RA can only allocate so much for top-ups and with Rob Valetini re-signed on a big deal worth north of $600,000, Langi Gleeson emerging and Rob Leota re-signed too, there is so only so much for another ball-running back-rower.
“I don’t deal with the contract side,” Jones said when asked about Wilson’s future on Friday.
“All I know is that Harry Wilson is a player of interest, and if he keeps playing well he’ll get selected. If he doesn’t keep playing well, he won’t get selected.”
Dynamic centre Hunter Paisami is weighing up his future too, with Japan a genuine option.
Here is the current contract status of the Wallabies’ most-recent 44-man training squad:
Allan Alaalatoa: Re-signed through until end of 2027 and a strong contender to captain the Wallabies going forward.
Angus Bell – Re-signed through until end of 2027 and one of the best young props in the world.
Matt Gibbon – Re-signed through until end of 2025.
Tom Robertson – Off contract, but understood to be keen to stay at the Western Force.
James Slipper – Unsigned beyond 2023, but wants to stay.
Sam Talakai – Signed through until end of 2024.
Taniela Tupou – Signed on a million-dollar deal through until end of 2025 with the Rebels.
Folau Fainga’a – Heading to France after season.
Lachlan Lonergan – Signed through until end of 2025.
David Porecki – Signed through until end of 2024.
Nick Frost – Signed at the last moment in 2022 on a three-year deal through until end of 2025.
Cadeyrn Neville – The Wallabies’ second oldest debutant in 2022, Neville is off contract and exploring options.
Matt Philip – Off contract, but the Rebels lock is hoping to stay in Australia.
Izack Rodda – Signed through until end of 2024, but well liked by Jones.
Darcy Swain – Signed through until end of 2024.
Charlie Gamble – Recently re-signed on a new two-year deal and Michael Hooper’s heir apparent at the Waratahs in the No.7 jersey.
Langi Gleeson – Off contract, but expected to re-sign until 2025.
Ned Hanigan – Off contract but on the hunt for a new deal.
Jed Holloway – Re-signed through until end of 2025.
Michael Hooper – The Wallabies’ most-capped captain; the no.7 is considering his future and hasn’t made up his mind beyond the World Cup.
Rob Leota – Re-signed through until end of 2025.
Fraser McReight – Re-signed through until end of 2025.
Pete Samu – Heading to France following the World Cup.
Rob Valetini – Re-signed through until end of 2027.
Harry Wilson – Off contract and strongly considering a move overseas.
Jake Gordon – Expected to re-sign through until end of 2025.
Ryan Lonergan – Signed through until end of 2025.
Tate McDermott – Expected to re-sign imminently on a long-term deal.
Nic White – Off contract but wants to stay.
Quade Cooper – Japan-based.
Ben Donaldson – Off contract.
Noah Lolesio – Signed until end of 2024.
Lalakai Foketi – Expected to re-sign imminently on a two-year deal.
Len Ikitau – Expected to re-sign imminently on a two-year deal.
Hunter Paisami – Off contract and weighing up a move overseas.
Izaia Perese – Off contract.
Samu Kerevi – Expected to sign a new Japanese deal.
Kurtley Beale – Unclear.
Jock Campbell – Signed through until end of 2024.
Reece Hodge – Heading to France.
Andrew Kellaway – Signed through until end of 2024.
Mark Nawaqanitawase – Expected to be announced on a new one-year deal.
Jordan Petaia – Signed through until end of 2024.
Tom Wright – Expected to be announced on a new two-year deal.