Junior buzz continues as rising stars commit to rugby over league

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

With the glow of the Junior Wallabies' success still fresh, the good news in Australia's junior rugby ranks has continued with three more elite teenage stars rejecting league offers to stay with the 15-man game.

For years NRL teams have been targeting and poaching Australian schoolboy rugby stars but after Rugby Australia established a Fighting Fund last year, the tables have started to turn significantly.

Last year star trio Will Harris, Angus Bell and Reesjan Pasitoa were signed by Rugby AU and the Waratahs and Brumbies respectively, despite being chased by NRL clubs.

And in recent weeks Rugby Australia has recently locked down another trio of in-demand rookies: Queensland flyer JoJo Fifita, classy NSW fullback John Connolly and rugged Sydney flanker Luke Reimer.

Reimer was being chased by South Sydney Rabbitohs, and had reportedly been offered a three-year deal to play under Wayne Bennett. The Bunnies recently announced with glee they’d poached from rugby 15-year-old Joseph Suaalii and Lachlan Ilias.

But Reimer - an Aussie schools representative last year - has been signed by Rugby AU and the Brumbies for 2020, and is currently playing for Warringah in the Shute Shield.

Connolly is still playing the Kings School, alongside Suaalii, and represented the Australian schools and under 18s last year at fullback against New Zealand and on their tour of Ireland and Scotland.

It’s understood Parramatta Eels were pushing hardest for Connolly among a number of interested NRL clubs. He will join the Waratahs after his schooling finishes up.

Fifita is a 16-year-old speedster who plays centre for The Southport School, and has been chased by the Melbourne Storm. He too has elected to stay with rugby, however, will join the Reds system at the end of 2020.

Coming at same time former Aussie schoolboy Nick Frost was recruited back from two years with the Crusaders, the trio of signings - and the three locked down last year - represent good outcomes for rugby on the battleground for junior talent.

For many years Australian schools rugby was raided by league without any real resistance, with league offering superior money and much clearer junior pathways.

But the Fighting Fund, and a restructure of the pathway programs between the under 16 and under 20s levels, has allowed clubs and Rugby Australia to get in the hunt for the best 16-18-year-olds and keep them in rugby with an attractive vision for the future.

Pasitoa was secured amid interest from league and Kiwi rugby clubs, and the highly-rated Harris was chased by the Storm, too. 

Bell and Harris were both in the Australian Schools and under 18s team last year and started in the Junior Wallabies side who downed the Junior All Blacks on the Gold Coast.

The success of the Junior Wallabies will only help sell the Australian rugby vision in the future, too, with the win proof that new under 18s and under 19s programs feeding directly into the under 20s system works.

"It’s just been a conscious effort to understand that we have work very hard to recruit, with the opposition from the other codes obviously,” Australia Head of National XVs Programs Adrian Thompson told RUGBY.com.au.

"These three guys (Fifita, Reimer and Connolly) have had good experience through rugby, but you wouldn’t say they were league kids or rugby kids. 

"They were genuinely undecided and for us to be able to get them is not only down to the Fighting Fund but its speaks highly of the programs they’re in with their schools and so on, as well.”

Junrio Wallabies backrower Will Harris training ahead of Australia's Oceania U20 clash against New Zealand. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThompson said he was pleased to see Frost back in Australia after he elected to spend two years in the Crusaders’ system.

"It’s bloody good to have him back and no doubt he has benefited from some overseas experience,” he said.