He’s the teenage talent that has tongues wagging and incumbent Wallabies captain Michael Hooper says it’s a positive sign for rugby in Australia that the code remains in the conversation to sign Joseph Suaalii.
Suaalii’s name has been in the headlines all week after The Daily Telegraph wrote that the 16-year-old was set to renege on his deal with South Sydney and instead sign a $3 million deal with Rugby Australia.
RA CEO Rob Clarke described the money being speculated by News Corp as “fanciful” and decried the tactic being used to “pressure” the youngster into not joining the 15-person game.
The option of private benefactors, which have been used to supplement high-profile players in the past and also make up the Rugby Australia 'fighting fund' established in recent season, could potentially give Rugby Australia the opportunity to offer Suaalii more than they otherwise would.
Even still, reports have since surfaced that players are incensed that the 16-year-old is being lured on a potential seven-figure deal as the code attempts to ride the COVID-19 storm, which saw all but three players take 60 per cent pay cuts and contracting freezes take place.
While Hooper said he wasn’t privy to how much RA were prepared to offer the boom back, but added that it was big tick for the game’s direction when a player of Suaalii’s potential was considering backing the 15-person game over the NRL.
“Oh man, I would have hated that (headlines) at 16,” Hooper told Fox Sports.
“Look, I don’t know what all the numbers are and stuff like that, I’m not in those discussions and glad to not be, but it’s exciting to be in the conversation for someone who’s clearly the next talent coming through.
“Talent doesn’t always equal a gem, and that’s going to be a great challenge for him as a young man to grow and develop into being an outstanding player, but it’s nice for rugby to be in that conversation…
“For him, I’m excited to see what he becomes in our sport."
Meanwhile, Hooper, who is contracted with the Waratahs until the end of the 2023 World Cup, stopped short of guaranteeing that he would remain in Australia for its duration and not take up an optional sabbatical overseas.
But the 99-capped Wallaby said that he was encouraged and enjoying playing in an Australian-only tournament which didn't include as much travel.
"What I'm interested in is growing as a player," he said.
"By the end of my career, I want to be able to say, 'I tried to be the best player I can be'. How that pans out with me over the next couple of years, I'm unsure because you don't know how it's going to look, I don't know how it's going to look, but I know one thing is that I want to be the best player I can be.
"I'm getting now an opportunity in my career to play solely an Australian comp, which I never thought I'd be able to play. You would never have anticipated that.
"What can I do in this competition (is the focus)? The other guys here, the senor guys, have certainly been in the same mindset, Rob Simmons, Karmichael (Hunt), Tetera Faulkner, some guys that have been around for a long time, well this is a bit of a new lease on life, there’s no travelling, (so) what can we get out of this competition? We can help leave a mark here with some of the guys that are coming through and that’s been really exciting. And the enthusiasm brought from all of the guys in the squad, maybe it’s a first or second year (player), has been so great for us."