"Fighting fund" and international opportunities to help keep Junior Wallabies: Castle

World Rugby U20s Championship
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Rugby Australia's "Fighting Fund" and the lure of international representation is combining to help keep the successful Junior Wallabies crop, and many others, stay in rugby, CEO Raelene Castle says.

Last year, the organisation set aside a pool of money dubbed the "fighting fund" to try and sign some of the sport's best rising teenagers, many of whom have been hotly pursued by NRL clubs.

Part of Rugby Australia’s “Fighting Fund” has been used to help lock rising star Will Harris into rugby, with the no. 8 signing a development deal with the Waratahs off the back of a standout Schools season.

Harris has always played rugby and said the clear pathway set out for him was a major incentive to stay in the most familiar code.

“I've always grown up playing rugby and I've always enjoyed it,” he said.

“I just thought there was more benefit in me staying in rugby because it's the sport I've grown up playing and I love playing it.

“There was a solid pathway that was laid down for me and it was outlined how I could transition from out of school and into hopefully professional environment in the near future.

“It was a pretty hard decision, obviously there's a lot of good clubs in both codes and I think they both have their benefits but I'm very happy to stay in rugby.”

Junrio Wallabies backrower Will Harris training ahead of Australia's Oceania U20 clash against New Zealand. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyHarris is one of a number of players being signed up with the boost of the Fighting Fund as Australian rugby works to keep its best talent in the game.

Junior Wallabies prop Angus Bell is another who has been locked up to stay in rugby while schools prospects including Nudgee flyhalf Reesjan Pasitoa have already been signed for 2020.

Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle said there were still more rising stars they were hoping to secure, the fund was already having a big impact.

“The fighting fund was important to make sure that we keep these talented young guys because the best five or six out of this group have all said scouts from other codes chasing them,” she said.

“The fact that we've been able to contract them, sell them the dream of what it's about to become a Wallaby going to Rugby World Cups, that's been really important and we have got a few other targets that we want to make sure are secure but it's an important part of the process.”

While the emerging school talent is not yet targeted by big-money overseas clubs, Castle said ensuring that they felt the chance to work towards a Wallabies shot was valuable would help ensure they stayed.

Junior Wallabies coach Jason Gilmore and the team arrived in Sydney on Tuesday morning. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley“These boys are probably a little bit away from that yet, so probably got another few years of development to make sure they transition through this 20s and through NRC and potentially into Super Rugby so some of them you'll probably see playing Super Rugby next year, for a few of them they're still a wee way away,” she said.

“We face a really challenging market, there are people with much bigger cheque books than us (looking for talent) but the thing that they can't deliver is a green and gold jersey and that's really important and the opportunity to represent your country still holds true and that's what we continue to talk to this group about.’

All but one of the Junior Wallabies squad that went to the World Rugby U20s Championship has a professional contract, with some on full deals and some on wider training squad agreements.

Junior Wallabies coach Jason Gilmore said he and national performance manager Adrian Thompson would be working to ensure the next crop of rising stars were locked in as well.

“Keeping them in rugby is our main aim, you've got to make sure that you retain all these boys,” he said.

“The majority of these guys would be on contracts ranging from development to full playing squad with the Super Rugby teams.

“Adrian Thompson and I will go around the country and meet up with the Super teams and the Western Force as well, about the players that aren't contracted and where they're sitting at the moment but there's a bright future and there's a lot of good footballers in this group.”

A number of the Junior Wallabies are locked into development or full Super Rugby contracts. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThe appetite to keep these players in rugby will only increase after their runner-up finish at the World Rugby U20s championship, the best result in nearly a decade.

That last group included players like Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, Matt To’omua, Nic White and a host of other regular Super Rugby and capped Test players.

Even in recent years, strong 20s graduates have ended up in Test jerseys, with names including Izack Rodda, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Jack Maddocks making their Wallabies debuts after progressing through the program.

Junior Wallabies captain Fraser McReight said it was a strange thought but he felt many in the group had the potential to push for higher honours down the track.

“I think there's some very, very talented players, they're all very talented,” he said.

“It's weird you know that reflecting back on that 2010 team and it's weird looking around the boys you've spent six months with and just be like there's actually future Wallabies in this team.

"That's kind of scary and kind of weird and just it's a weird feeling but I definitely think a lot of these boys will go into Super Rugby and do really well and a lot more will go on and play Wallabies.

“So it should be a good success for Australian rugby in the future.”