As NRL star Payne Haas was linked to a high-profile cross-code switch, Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan has declared their rugby league cousins have “lost their minds” after sensationally attacking his meeting with rugby-bound Joseph Suaalii.
Weeks after Suaalii signed a multi-million-dollar deal to join Rugby Australia in 2025, McLennan and fellow board member Phil Waugh met the 19-year-old for coffee in Woollahra on Wednesday morning.
Within hours, News Corp had caught wind of the meeting and declared the teenager had been “sprung” and left “red faced” from his “secret meeting”.
News Corp insinuated the back had been distracted and didn’t have his priorities right following consecutive defeats.
On Wednesday afternoon, McLennan hit back.
“The NRL has absolutely lost their mind,” McLennan told The Roar.
McLennan said there was nothing sinister at play and the governing body was checking in on his “well-being” following the “media firestorm”.
“At rugby, we’re very pro-player and their welfare.”
McLennan was the key driver in luring Suaalii back to the XV-person game and has built a relationship with the NRL’s highest profile player under 20.
During the meeting, they spoke about an array of things, including where he was most excited to play.
“I said Murrayfield and ‘Waughie’ said the Stade de France but also added Twickenham,” McLennan said.
The Roar has been told of several NRL stars reaching out to Rugby Australia since Suaalii’s bombshell decision to jump ship.
While some rugby players have raised eyebrows by Suaalii’s huge deal, the vast majority believe he will have a positive impact on Australian rugby. Others support it but also say RA will consequently feel it at the pocket as a result.
At least three Wallabies backs, one off contract this year, have told RA officials they will have to up their price as a result of Suaalii’s huge deal.
Nonetheless, more and more NRL players are starting to consider switching codes and have begun picking up the phone to RA.
On Wednesday, Brisbane Broncos star Haas became the latest.
Hass, 23, is the Broncos’ highest paid player and is arguably the game’s most influential prop.
RA held talks with Haas in 2021, with then-Director of Rugby Scott Johnson meeting with the forward, who played rugby union as a teenager before shifting his priorities to league.
Nothing progressed, but it’s understood the forward is keeping his options open when he comes off contract at the end of 2024 – the same date Suaalii will join RA.
It’s understood RA won’t move heaven and earth to sign Haas, but McLennan confirmed the governing body was interested in the NSW State of Origin forward and, indeed, anyone who was game-breaker and wanted to play for the Wallabies.
“Payne could definitely be wearing Wallaby gold,” McLennan told News Corp.
“We really like Payne. He has a strong rugby pedigree and it’s probably time for him to spread his wings and do something really special.
“The Broncos are great — but playing for the Wallabies against the British Lions would be even better.
“By playing rugby, Payne can see the world.”
A 118kg beast, Haas is built in the same vein as England back-rower Billy Vunipola, who played a key role for Jones during the Australia’s seven-year reign with the Rugby Football Union.
Former Origin and Kangaroos forward Corey Parker said he could understand why rugby would be interested in securing him.
“He is a special talent and he would be an asset for the Wallabies,” Parker told News Corp.
“Payne is not your normal rugby league athlete.
“He is such a gifted forward and for his size and speed, he is remarkably fit and I have no doubt he would be successful in rugby.
“I don’t know what position he plays because I don’t know the game well enough, but he would certainly have the talent to make it in rugby.
“Apparently he has a rugby union background and I’m sure Payne will be putting a lot of thought into his future.”