Flood of back three talent highlights Australia’s folly in pursuing league stars

Mark Nawakanitawasi had one of his best games of the year for New South Wales on Saturday, with his performance against the ACT Brumbies in heavy, pouring rain at Sydney's Allianz Stadium reminding Waratahs and Wallabies fans alike what they will miss in 2025.

Like the Waratahs more broadly, Nawakanitawasi's form in 2024 has been somewhat up and down. In his third match of the year in the No.15 shirt, after spending most of the season on the right wing, Nawakanitawasi was composed under the high ball, kicking well and passing powerfully from the back as the game unfolded in the worst of conditions. The game was played in Australia in the professional era.

His performance was a timely reminder of his qualities, and has well and truly put him back in the frame to feature in Joe Schmidt's Wallabies side sometime this year.

However, it won't last all year, with the Waratahs' big overseas side linking up with NRL powers Sydney Roosters at the end of the 2024 season.

Nawaqanitawase's decision during the off-season that he was ready for a new challenge in rugby league was simply because the Roosters reached out and asked to meet, with a hole to fill at their outside backs. Rugby league clubs reaching out to rugby players is nothing new, but in this particular case, there has been definite retaliation for all of it.

Nawaqanitawase will switch to the league later this year but could still play for the Wallabies previously (Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP) via Getty Images)

The gap the Roosters needed to fill was that of Joseph Okosu Swale, the schoolboy rugby prodigy who turned down the 15-a-side game to sign with South Sydney straight out of high school and made his NRL debut as a 17-year-old. He is a year old before the Rabbitohs stunned by turning to arch rivals the Roosters.

Having won the 2027 Rugby World Cup, and with the British and Irish Lions arriving in 2025, bringing Suaali'i back to Australian rugby has become a trivial project for former Australian Rugby president, Hamish McLennan. He was heavily and personally involved in the hiring process from start to finish, and was front and center in the announcements made.

“Welcome back to rugby, Joseph,” McLennan said in a March 2023 RA statement confirming he had landed his man.

McLennan will continue to launch a one-man pursuit of rugby league players in 2023 – especially those with strong rugby backgrounds – but for all his bravado, menace and promises of “lots more” to follow Suaali'i, there are no longer any NRL players tempted to switch Symbols. Since McLennan's sacking as Rugby Union president in the wake of the disastrous 2023 Rugby World Cup, all plans for further raids on rugby league have been cancelled.

Even with the loss of Nawaqanitawase next season, the Tahs will acquire Andrew Kellaway from the Melbourne Rebels and still have Max Jorgensen, Dylan Beach and Tristan Riley to cover the back three.

The signing of Suaali'i – on a three-year contract worth A$1.6 million per season – was and is still seen as the latest example of Australian rugby seeking silver bullet solutions, and came just months after Eddie Jones' return. to Australia with similar promises to solve all the ills in the game.

Talk about pressuring a new recruit to deliver.

But the interesting subplot comes in the form of a surprising embarrassment of offshore riches within Australian rugby at the moment. Players have either rediscovered their form, taken the next step in their careers, or seemingly come out of nowhere, and their collective presence leaves fans asking the same question: Where will Joseph Suale play next season?

The Waratahs are the first answer to this question, but therein lies the first problem.

Even with the loss of Nawaqanitawase next season, the Tahs will acquire Andrew Kellaway from the Melbourne Rebels and still have Max Jorgensen, Dylan Beach and Tristan Riley to cover the back three. The full-back certainly seems unavailable to the new recruit.

Youssef Sawali
Joseph Swale has been lured from Sydney Roosters but it is not clear what position he will hold in NSW (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Suaali'i has played mostly at left midfield for the Roosters this year, which would make a move to the No.13 position somewhat unlikely, as it's difficult to ask of a man who is used to defending only one side of the pitch suddenly facing… What is widely considered the toughest defensive position in rugby.

Furthermore, in the absence of Isaiah Pires – who will also head to Leicester later this year – Joey Walton has made an irresistible case for continuing at outside position for the Waratahs.

There will be an assumption that Suaali'i will feature in a Wallabies jersey at some stage, and he spoke at the time of his defection of pulling a Lions tour, but that would be far from a smooth progression given the current form of overseas backs across the country.

This has been Tom Wright's return to form this season as a 15-year-old for the ACT Brumbies, and it will be easy to decide whether he or Kellaway wears the number for Australia against Wales in July. The other should slot straight into the right winger/fullback hybrid role alongside him anyway.

Tom Wright
The Brumbies' in-form Tom Wright has already played on both wings and at fullback for Australia (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Likewise, Queensland Reds fullback Jock Campbell has regained his form in recent weeks and is certain to be at least discussed, although he currently trails slightly behind Wright and Kelloway in the national jersey.

The Brumbies' Len Ekitau looks set to return straight back to the No.13 jersey after he was absurdly left out of the RWC, although Reds' Josh Flook would make a good replacement case. It is widely assumed that the Wallabies' inside midfield position is the one they will lose Hunter Paisami, which would make NSW's Lalakai Foketi – normally a 12 – option to play one position wider as well. Jordan Pitaya may also appear in this conversation.

There's no shortage of options currently either, with Nawaqanitawase still in the frame for this season alongside the likes of Queensland's Mac Grealy, Brumbies action machine Corey Toole, the Waratahs' Pietsch and Jorgensen too, once he's fit again. Petaia is also an option in wide channels.

Another former Sevens star Darby Lancaster and former Queensland Under-20s player Tim Ryan have grabbed a lot of attention with highlights that show there is still plenty of overseas talent for well under A$1.6 million a year.

New Zealand-born Ollie Sapsford, who qualifies for the Brumbies through his Australian mother, has received plenty of praise for his versatility this season, starting games at midfield and on both wings, as well as switching to outside midfield during matches.

Former Sevens Rebels Australian flyer Lachie Anderson has enjoyed a consistent season, with the biggest surprise last month being Western Force's Bailee Quinzel, who left the Brumbies as fly-half and slotted into inside position on his arrival at Wests, and has more than made a fist From playing in the 13 and 14 shirts recently. He has good pace and finishing ability which is surprising for someone who has spent so much of his time in midfield.

All of this is before we start considering the real explosions of winger talent this season, in another former Sevens star Darby Lancaster, and former Australian Under-20 Queensland young defender Tim Ryan. Both have garnered a ton of attention with highlight reels that show there's still plenty of overseas talent out there for well under $1.6 million AUD per year.

Bailey Quinzel
Bailly Kuenzel has played at number 10 and 12 but has shown his ability at number 13 and winger recently (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Lancaster has a real eye for the line, but Ryan has been as impressive in his defense as he has been in his elite attack.

Ryan made headlines with his first try in Brisbane against the Blues playing on the left wing, but has since followed it up with a brace against the Crusaders in the Reds' famous win in Christchurch, and another try last week against the Reds. Rebels. His last two matches were on the right wing.

This is a much longer list of names than the places available in the Wallabies squad, with the July Tests and Rugby Championship coming later in the year, but it also shows that there are enough talented outside backs in Australian rugby at the moment.

The pursuit of Suaali'i has already cost Rugby Australia Mark Nawaqanitawase, and you just hope it doesn't lead to another mini-exodus as more players find the budget a little tight come contract extension time.

Pursuing league players has been one of the cards played regularly over the past 25 years in Australia, and it has always been as much about publicity and headlines as it has been about acquiring talent. Most, if not all, of the big-name, big-money recruits end up back in the league, and it's honestly surprising that Suliasi Vunivalu didn't end up the same way.

The Joseph Swalley scenario looks set to end in exactly the same way, with the Roosters making no secret of the fact that they intend to bring him back once his contract expires.

What kind of question arises, what is the point of it all? He could pay A$1.6 million per year for three years for four or five of those names mentioned above, and they are already in the game.

The pursuit of Suaali'i has already cost Rugby Australia Mark Nawaqanitawase, and you just hope it doesn't lead to another mini-exodus as more players find the budget a little tight come contract extension time.

It would be a high price to pay for the last silver bullet.


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