Australian rugby should do what it can to hang onto its off-contract stars, Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson says.
Three of Australia’s highest-profile Wallabies - captain Michael Hooper, flyhalf Bernard Foley and fullback Israel Folau - are all off-contract this season, among 19 Waratahs coming to the end of their deals, along with Test rookie Jack Dempsey.
Foley and Hooper have had among the heaviest loads in Super Rugby and Tests in recent seasons, and their retention would seem highly likely, where Folau’s next move is less clear.
Both Foley and Folau signed flexible contracts in their last negotiations that included Japanese stints, though neither fulfilled those requirements fully.
Foley played one season with the Ricoh Black Rams but opted out of a second year, while an ankle injury prevented Folau from playing any matches for the Red Hurricanes.
Gibson said keeping the three in Australia would be a key focus in 2018.
“I think that's a priority for Australian rugby,’ he said.
“Obviously they're nationally-contracted players and Rugby Australia will be really keen to secure them in for the long-term future and beyond the World Cup.
“We'll be supportive of those negotiations going forward.”
Gibson said he would support going down the path of more flexible arrangements in a bid to keep these players, but the system was far from perfect.
“I think anything that helps our top players remain in Australia is a good thing, so I'm always going to be supportive of that,” he said.
“We probably just haven't got right what that means.
“Certainly, the players want that flexibility in their contract and I believe if it means our best players remain in Australia then it's something we need to look at.
“The more we can do to make it an attractive place financially as well and have that flexibility where players can still be topped up with their income that matches what they may get in France or the UK, that will certainly help their decision-making remaining in Australia.”
Foley said he hadn’t thought about the specifics of his contract just yet, but his number one priority was playing for the Wallabies.
“That will definitely come in the coming months, but for me we've had a focus of this preseason is getting ourselves right, getting ourselves in the best position to play Super Rugby and whatever happens after that will happen,” he said.
“There's so much footy to be played this year that we can only focus on the first couple of months and let the following look after themselves.
“There are guys that are exploring that (flexible) option but for us it's wanting to play in this Australian outfit, it's guys who really want to play in the Wallabies jersey because that for me is the utmost.
“That's the pinnacle of playing rugby is playing in that Wallabies jersey.
“We, I think, have a responsibility to try and make the Wallabies program the best it can be and keep and attract as many players as we can into wanting to be part of that program.”
The Waratahs open their Super Rugby season on Saturday February 24 at Allianz Stadium against the Stormers. Buy tickets here.