Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh insists Mark Nawaqanitawase’s shock defection to the NRL won’t harm his chances of earning selection for the Wallabies in 2024 and says the “door’s absolutely always open” should he one day wish to return to the game.
Waugh also said RA needed to do more to drive and deliver a strong culture to ensure players don’t just want to pick rugby but thrive in it.
After enduring the worst year on record since the game turned professional, Australian rugby copped another blow on Wednesday night as one of their best young talents turned down a multi-year extension deal with RA to sign with cross-code rivals the Sydney Roosters.
Nawaqanitawase was secured as a like-for-like replacement for Waratahs-bound back Joseph Suaalii, the brilliant 20-year-old former RA chairman Hamish McLennan threw the kitchen sink at earlier in the year to secure, who will jump codes following next year’s NRL season.
Rubbing salt into the wound, Waugh was with Roosters chairman Nick Politis and head coach Trent Robinson as Nawaqanitawase was telling his Waratahs teammates that he had opted to take up the two-year deal with the NRL powerhouse from 2025.
“I had a good chat with them last night,” Waugh told The Roar. “I get on with both of them really well.
“My view is we’ve been coexisting for a long time and we need to continue to coexist, so you certainly won’t have me going out and picking a war with any other code.
“We need to get out our backyard in order and then make sure that rugby’s thriving as best as we possibly can. But I think it’s the case of how do we coexist and both benefit?”
With Nawaqanitawase to miss the British and Irish Lions series in 2025, there is an argument for the 23-year-old to be left out of consideration for national duty.
But Waugh dismissed the idea of the exciting winger being excluded because he wouldn’t be available for that marquee series, saying under his watch the Wallabies would never look beyond the here and now.
“My view is that we need to pick our best 23 every time we play a Test match to win that Test match, so if he’s in the best 23 then he should absolutely be selected,” Waugh said.
“It [his departure] won’t impact at all his selection.
“I got very frustrated with the narrative being turned around in ’23 saying that it’s about building for the Lions and ’27 [World Cup] because every time we put a Test team out in the field, we should be winning that Test with our best team on the field. I’m very passionate about that.
“I certainly don’t believe in blooding players for future Test matches. If we’re playing a Test match, we’ve got to have our best 23 selected.
“We’re playing every Test in ’24 to win it.”
By signing until the end of 2026 with the Tricolours, Nawaqanitawase has given himself an option to return in time for the Rugby World Cup in 2027.
Waugh, who last month said rugby would no longer throw massive dollars at NRL players, added the code wouldn’t rule out making a pitch to lure him back for the showpiece event.
“We don’t hold any grudges on the fact that someone’s chosen to do something else for a couple of years,” he said.
“We need as many good athletes in our system as we can and whether he gets selected or not depends on the next breed of players coming through on the wings and how well they perform in ‘25 and ’26 and what sort of demand there is to backfill.”
Nawaqanitawase would have earned more had he stayed in rugby, but the exciting back, who is the best in the air since Israel Folau and was one of the few players who has impressed over the past 14 months in Wallabies colours, wanted to spread his wings and test himself in the NRL.
But his departure has once again shined the spotlight on RA’s culture and vision, with neither a director of high-performance nor a Wallabies coach in place.
In stark contrast, the Roosters wooed Nawaqanitawase across to the NRL after impressing him with their professional environment and the belief that Robinson, a premiership-winning coach with ties to rugby after learning his craft as a coach in France and coaches Scott Robertson and Michael Cheika, could make the prodigious talent a better player.
Waugh, a former Wallabies captain who played in the 2003 World Cup and took the Waratahs to the Super Rugby final, said Nawaqanitawase’s departure was a harsh reminder of the need for RA to pick up its act after years of failure on and off the field.
“I mean, ideally, we’d have a director of performance in place and we’d have a head coach in place and a culture that was thriving and a culture that everyone wanted to be a part of,” he said.
“There’s definitely that need and that requirement to get there quickly.
“We know we’re not where we need to be right now, but hopefully we can move reasonably quickly in the next week or so on the director of high performance and then move pretty quickly on the coach as well.
“There’s no doubt that a good culture with the right values and behaviours drives recruitment and retention, and we need to get there.”
Meanwhile, Waugh will head across the ditch over the weekend to have Super Rugby Pacific board meetings with his New Zealand Rugby counterparts.
It’s expected that the much-talked about Super Rugby commission will be announced next week, with Waugh saying the new governing body would ensure the tournament gets back to its past glories.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Waugh said.
“It’s been a bit of a strained relationship over the last period of time, but how do we ensure that we tighten that relationship because we both need to be successful for the game in the south to be successful, so it’s really important that we sort that out.
“Nothing’s off the table in terms of being creative to ensure that the brand that Super Rugby Pacific delivers is attractive to fans, broadcasters and commercial partners.
“It’s very much if you had a clean sheet of paper, how would you get this tournament humming and get it back to what it was historically – the best provincial tournament in the world – and then how do we get there?”