Mortlock: No more flexibility needed on Test eligibility

Stirling Mortlock
by Stirling Mortlock

The balance when it comes to Test eligibility for overseas-based players is a delicate one and I believe that it should not be tampered with anytime soon.


Michael Cheika’s introduction of the “Giteau Law” last season was a positive move, I believe, but the ARU should resist the temptation to further tweak the eligibility as a knee jerk reaction to a number of players heading offshore.


A handful of talented players well under that 60-Test mark will be heading overseas at the end of the season - Matt Toomua, Joe Tomane, Mike Harris, Greg Holmes. Added to this there are a number of uncapped or younger players also heading abroad.


Having that eligibility does change your thinking as a player when it comes to discussing contracts.


I was offered overseas deals a number of times through my career and if there had been that sort of window, it would have been a tempting one to explore.


Matt Giteau earned the chance to return to Test duty. Photo: Getty ImagesThe lure of the Wallabies jersey, and later on in my career, the chance to be a part of the foundation Rebels team and the opportunity to make a smooth transition into life after Rugby ultimately kept me in Australia but you can certainly understand the dilemma players face.


We are in a challenging environment now where overseas deals are pretty much on the table from day one but guys know the rules, they are making their decision with that in mind and it is up to them.


If we were to suddenly go to a full outsourcing model, i.e. anyone’s eligible wherever they are playing, that would have a major detrimental effect on our teams and our local competitions.


Representing your country is an honour and a privilege, it is earned and not just handed to a player, and we need to reinforce that privilege.


I think 60 caps is a good level because those players have shown significant commitment to Australian rugby and probably deserve the freedom of movement a bit more.


If there’s any cautionary tale in these early European exits, it is someone like Digby Ioane, the former Reds and Force winger, someone I think went well before his peak.


Digby Ioane left Australia at the end of 2013. Photo Getty ImagesIoane moved to France at the end of the 2013 season after 35 Tests with the Wallabies but at a point in time where he was genuinely making a name for himself on the international stage.


He has most recently been playing with Japan’s Honda Heat, after 25 caps with Stade Francais.


There is always a risk when you leave early in your career that it’s not going to turn out the way you expected and then you can be forgotten in many ways in the rugby sphere.


For every Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau upping their standing in the pecking order, there could be an Ioane who doesn’t quite have the impact that many expected.


So, what can Australian teams do to compete when players are offered these bumper contracts?


Financially they simply can’t, but money is not the only thing a rugby club can provide.


Sekope Kepu has returned to Australia after a season overseas. Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyAustralian franchises should be looking at what they can offer players outside of sport throughout their careers to help set them up after retirement.


The Rugby Union Players Association and the ARU have been very proactive on this front in regards to education or Study. However I believe there is more potential in mentoring and work experience opportunities for players to expand their horizons, keep them well- grounded and also to leverage some of their skills and leadership from being in elite teams sport.


Many are certainly on the right track with this - when I was at the Rebels, most of the players would be off to work, study, or helping their charity on their training day off- and that needs to be Australia’s competitive advantage.