Kafer: Rugby must stay in the fight for Joseph Suaalii and those who follow him

Super Rugby - AU
by Rod Kafer

Wherever teenage star Joseph Suaalii decides to begin his professional football career, rugby fans should be glad the 15-man code is well and truly in the fight.

I am often asked, ‘Why doesn’t rugby hang onto more of its young kids?’ and it’s a conversation that has been happening around the country as teenagers sign deals with professional teams while still at school..

And with the discussion raging around the future of impressive teenager Suaalii, it’s a debate that is rearing its head again.

There was a time where rugby league was the only alternative to rugby when it came to rising stars looking down a football career.

In the days of Tim Horan, Joe Roff, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, though, rugby league officials weren’t looking too closely at rugby talent and it was a major decision to make the shift with players unable to juggle both.

As professionalism has grown across all sports, the competition for talent has become even more fierce and more athletes are finding viable pathways in a number of those sports.

Players who might once have been second rowers are now looking to AFL and basketball and others could be equally successful in any of the major football codes.

Ironically, probably the department that has the least multi-sport crossover is the front row and Australian rugby’s depth in that area has soared since 2015 particularly.

The competition for talent is something that rugby simply has to compete in, and to its credit, Rugby Australia has really stepped up in the last two years.

A strategy was put in place three years ago to ensure that could make more serious plays for promising kids in high school, start having conversations about encouraging them to pursue rugby as their sport of choice. 

Of course, this does not mean that you sign every talented player, and many have gone to other sports, but equally, many have stayed.

We’ve really seen that in the retention of Australia’s schools and U20s stars in the past two years and the establishment of the “Fighting Fund” has only boosted their chances of continuing that.

There was a time where maybe prospective talents would have played rugby as a schoolboy for the opportunity to go on the Schoolboys end of year tour, then sign with rugby league and be lost to rugby.

That dynamic has really shifted in recent years, where kids are in rugby programs as teenagers and while they might play some league, they’re really rugby kids and they want to stay in rugby.

Suaalii ticks all the boxes - he is a phenomenal footballer but he is also a very impressive young man who plays for his teammates.

All of those things contribute to the hype around him, that pressure is something that any good player has to learn to deal with.  Expectation follows talent.

There is always a risk in trying to lock in a young player but the risk of injury or other unforeseen happenings exists with every player from game 0 to game 300.

Rugby would be very fortunate to have him.

If rugby is not at least in the fight for players like him then nobody in our talent ID pathways are doing their job properly.

The alternative is we roll over and accept that we’re never going to attract the best talent and that’s a scenario no one would be happy with.

Identifying and retaining young talent is at the core of Rugby Australia’s duties and the hope is when you do, you can build teams around some of those players.

Obviously you have to ensure you’re getting value for money but no one is going to complain in 2023 or 2027 if players like Suaalii are helping Australia hoist the Webb Ellis Cup.

That won’t happen if rugby doesn’t try to make courageous decisions around players like him - he’s a fantastic footballer and rugby has to put its hat in the ring.

If Suaalii does ink a deal in NRL this weekend, we must contemplate that at some stage he could return, and welcome him back with open arms.

It's the changing nature of sport in Australia and we must adapt in order to remain relevant.    

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has been vocal about the need to maintain a connection with young players wherever they play and that can keep rugby in their thoughts, and Dave is an excellent judge of talent who builds strong relationships with his players.

Many of his ex-Chiefs players have told me it is one of his real strengths as a coach.

Brumbies winger Tom Wright is a great example of the new model for professional athletes.

Wright went to Sydney rugby nursery Joey’s and signed with the Manly Sea Eagles right out of school.

He played five NRL games for the Sea Eagles, hadn’t really embedded himself in their regular squad but still clearly had some serious talent.

Wright made the move to the Brumbies last year and now he’s on the cusp of a Wallabies squad after a standout 2020.

These players are so young and there are so many years ahead of them so the important thing to remember is that one contract, whichever way it goes, is not the be all and end all.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rugby Australia or its member unions.