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Done deal: Wallabies star signs with NRL powerhouse in brutal reality check for RA at start of 'golden decade'

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6th December, 2023
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Update: Rugby Australia might be on the cusp of an exciting four-year cycle, but not even the lure of playing the British and Irish Lions and, possibly, in a home World Cup has been enough to keep one of their rising stars.

In a massive blow to Australian rugby, The Roar can confirm Wallabies winger Mark Nawaqanitawase has signed a two-year deal with NRL heavyweight the Sydney Roosters.

The decision comes after The Roar revealed on Wednesday night the exciting back was set to jump codes.

After telling teammates his decision on Wednesday night, the 23-year-old, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2022 before featuring prominently for the Wallabies at the World Cup, agreed to terms formally on Thursday morning at 6am.

The Roosters had pushed for a three-year deal, but crucially Nawaqanitawase has left open the opportunity to return to rugby ahead of the World Cup and will be a free agent by the end of 2027.

Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh expressed his disappointment in a statement on Thursday morning.

“We are disappointed – Mark has been a strong player over the last 12 months,” Waugh said.

“However, the outside backs are a position of strength for us, with great depth coming through.

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“We are confident we are well-stocked with talented wingers for the future.”

Money isn’t the overarching reason for the move, with the winger to earn an estimated $600,000.

Had money been a factor, he could have signed with three different French clubs for significantly more money.

Mark Nawaqanitawase during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 opener against Georgia at Stade de France on September 09, 2023 in Paris. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Nawaqanitawase met with Roosters coach Trent Robinson in the days after returning home from Europe last month and was immediately impressed.

He has since met with Robinson on a couple of occasions since and is effectively a straight replacement for Waratahs-bound back Joseph Suaalii, who earlier this year signed a mega $1.6 million, three-year deal to join Rugby Australia from the end of 2024.

It was hoped that Nawaqanitawase would form a rockstar backline alongside Suaalii and Max Jorgensen, but one key piece of the puzzle is now lost after the extra money was thrown at the rising star of the NRL.

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RA had moved to try and lock down the prolific tryscorer despite not having either a director of high-performance nor a Wallabies coach in place yet.

It’s believed the governing body offered Nawaqanitawase a multi-year deal worth more than $500,000 per season to stay in the game.

But keen for a sea change, the exciting back believed it was either now or never if he wanted to fulfil his dream of playing in the NRL.

Mark Nawaqanitawase scores against the Melbourne Rebels at Allianz Stadium, on May 13, 2023, in Sydney. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Nawaqanitawase, whose father Sevuloni played rugby league for Balmain, has never shied away from expressing his interest in exploring other opportunities.

Earlier this year, The Roar revealed that he signed a one-year extension to stay with the Waratahs until the end of the 2024.

The decision to sign the short-term deal was made to keep his options open beyond next season, as well as a belief that his playing stocks would rise. They did, but the remuneration package is chalk and cheese compared to Suaalii.

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“I would have liked more; I’d love to stay here as long as I can,” Nawaqanitawase told The Sydney Morning Herald earlier in the year.

“With certain circumstances, we had to agree on something. The one-year [deal] was the best thing at the time.

“In a perfect world I’d like to stay [in rugby], but there’s always a but. There’s obviously other things out there that might interest me.”

Mark Nawaqanitawase of the Wallabies runs with the ball during the The Rugby Championship & Bledisloe Cup match between the Australia Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 29, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images)

Mark Nawaqanitawase makes a linebreak against the All Blacks during the 2023 Bledisloe Cup opener at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 29, 2023 in Melbourne. (Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images)

His Waratahs and Wallabies teammate Angus Bell told reporters on Wednesday the decision was ultimately up to him.

“That’s completely up to Marky and what he does,” he said.

“Me, La [Lalakai Foketi] and the returning Wallabies, during these times we just try and concentrate on becoming better rugby players. That’s a decision for Marky to make and whatever is his decision is his decision.”

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Nawaqanitawase’s decision to sign with the Roosters is a reality check for RA.

After scoring a double on debut against the Crusaders in 2020, it took him two years to find his feet – and shoulders – on the field, as went from strength to strength and was a bolter on the 2022 Spring Tour.

Since debuting against Italy in Florence last year, Nawaqanitawase has been one of the Wallabies’ rare shining lights and has emerged as the best in the air since Israel Folau.

Now, he is the first since Mat Rogers to return to the NRL as a current Wallaby.

Rogers signed with the Titans in 2006 to join the NRL club in 2008, but was released early.

It’s unlikely there will be any straight swap deal with Suaalii given the NRL star has unfinished business with the Roosters in 2024, including making the NSW State of Origin side, and Nawaqanitawase wants to win some Tests with the Wallabies.

The governing body had hoped the lure of featuring in a Lions series would be enough to keep its best players in Australia, but Nawaqanitawase’s move indicates otherwise.

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As recently as Tuesday, Waugh was spruiking the opportunities ahead with regards to Joseph Suaalii’s pending move to the game.

“I think Joseph comes across to rugby in November [2024] and we’ve got the grand slam tour,” Waugh said on the Big Sports Breakfast.

“I played for the Wallabies for a decade and never got the opportunity to play in a grand slam tour … it’s a special tour, so if he’s performing well enough and there’s a position available in that squad to go and conquer the grand slam in the UK, and then through to the series to the Lions and the home World Cup, I think it’s a really exciting time for any player to be involved in Australian rugby.”

In other news, former Waratahs back Triston Reilly has returned to the Super Rugby franchise from the West Tigers.

The 24-year-old featured for the Tigers in 2023 but left the NRL club last week. He was seen at Waratahs training on Wednesday.

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