Sources indicated most of rugby’s offer could be funded by third-party donors to the Australian Rugby Foundation, in the style of David Paradice’s contribution to David Pocock’s final contract and the Salteri family’s backing – later withdrawn – of Israel Folau.
But the use of RA’s so-called ’emerging Wallabies’ fund to table an offer to the Australian Schools winger did not spare director of rugby Scott Johnson the wrath of sections of the playing group, players’ union and player agents on Wednesday.
Johnson’s boss, RA interim chief Rob Clarke, was on the phones early in the day to reassure senior players and the Rugby Union Players Association that no deal had been signed and that the $3 million figure was a lie.
Nevertheless, some players, agents and Super Rugby officials were furious that Johnson had been allowed to keep negotiating with Suaalii’s family while teams and agents were operating under a strict, game-wide contract freeze. Players and staff have also accepted significant pay cuts to help steer the game out of the COVID-19 crisis.
Johnson told the Herald last month that his hands were tied in relation to Suaalii because he had no clarity on his budget going forward and likely wouldn’t have for some time. In that context, RA was hoping the delay of the Tokyo Olympics would work in rugby’s favour. Suaalii, 16, would not have been eligible for the Games this year. He will be next year.
It is not known whether the emergence of third-party backers changed rugby’s capacity to offer Suaalii a deal but it appears the most likely factor, in the continued absence of a broadcast deal for next year as well as RA’s reliance on a World Rugby bailout and the federal government’s JobKeeper package to limp through until the end of the year.
Two player sources characterised even the tabling of an offer as a “breach of trust”, especially given the Melbourne Rebels have seen a huge chunk of their squad picked off by overseas clubs while they’ve been unable to lodge counter-offers.
‘[It’s] a tired and timeless tactic of attempting to pressure a young man into one choice.’
Clarke spoke again on Wednesday afternoon, attacking rugby league for trying to “pressure” Suaalii through the media.
“The continued speculation about the financial offer from certain sections of the media is a tired and timeless tactic of attempting to pressure a young man into one choice and how dare anyone have the temerity to choose to play rugby over another option?” Clarke said in a statement.
“To be clear, whilst rugby cannot compete financially with our friends in the 13-man game here in Australia, many professional athletes choose to become part of our game because of the many other positive attributes and global opportunities it provides. It’s not all about money.
“We congratulate Joseph on his journey so far in rugby and we will continue to put our best foot forward, like we do with all our young talent, in the expansive opportunities that rugby can offer.
“In this instance, Joseph may decide to pursue opportunities elsewhere and should he choose to do so, we would wish him every bit of luck in the future. Rugby will stand up and fight to be part of this conversation though, and conversations with other prospects into the future. Rugby’s pathways in Australia – in both club and school rugby – continue to produce world-class talent and that is a testament to our coaches and our talent-identification program.”
Georgina Robinson is the chief rugby reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.