Waratahs coach Rob Penney says age will be no barrier should the franchise secure in-demand teenager Joseph Suaalii, confirming he would pick the soon-to-be 17-year-old to play Super Rugby AU this season.
Penney stressed any decision to select Suaalii – who is now tipped to commit his future to the 15 man code by signing a contract with Rugby Australia – would have to be in the athlete’s best interests, but that there would be no unnecessary loyalty shown to existing Waratahs players.
While a deal is yet to be officially done, Penney couldn’t resist a cheeky dig at a rabid NRL community who thought it would see Suaalii put pen to paper on a three-year extension with South Sydney when he turns 17 on Aug. 1.
“Joseph is a rugby man, so I don’t know if he’s switching,” Penney told reports with a grin on Thursday. “Look who knows? He’s obviously an outstanding talent and a very popular individual at the moment … we’ve got a great game and we’d love to see him part of it, and he’s more than welcome. But obviously there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge yet.
“I haven’t actually met the kid yet, but I’ve just had the pleasure of watching his packages and he’ll be a great asset to the game.”
The original news report, published by the Daily Telegraph, suggested Rugby Australia’s offer was around the AU$1 million per season mark, a figure RA has widely discredited, with reports since indicating the contract may be worth anywhere in the vicinity of $200,000-500,0000 per year.
It is believed private benefactors and the Australian Rugby Foundation have agreed to foot a portion of the contract in a similar situation to those deals previously created for David Pocock and Israel Folau.
But the initial $3 million figure reported by the Telegraph certainly ruffled some feathers, Penney confirming that the Waratahs were quick to address the situation, after players who are all on reduced salaries, expressed their discomfort at the game’s pursuit of Suaalii.
“Yeah there has been [some unrest] and we’ve addressed it, the reality is that we’ve got all of our staff on only percentages of their contractual earning as well,” Penney said “So people across the game have made sacrifices.
“And the media reports could easily have undermined the environment and that was something that I was really conscious of, that we got on the front foot and we opened the door for conversations should people need them.
“It’s something that we’re really really conscious of, that media report coming out the way it did, the dollar values which are unsubstantiated, and the pressures that they may have put internally on individuals given the nature of the current environment; we really care for our people and that sort of stuff can cause a level of anxiety that is really unfortunate and unwarranted.
“There’s some realities around recruitment and big picture stuff that Australian rugby need to take care of and that’s what’s happening behind the scenes, and that’s no different to any other organisation that are looking to improve and looking to keep good people. But the reality is that we care for the people here as well and we need to be really mindful that anything that’s floating around in the ether is not undermining what we’re trying to put together here and how we’re trying to operate.”
If Suaalii does indeed sign with Rugby Australia he would be eligible to play Super Rugby AU from Aug. 1. That is in contrast to the NRL where players must be 18 years of age to play in the top grade.
At 1-2 to start the Super Rugby AU season, the Waratahs are after any playing edge possible. If Suaalii was able to add something to the team, then Penney said the outside back would be selected on that merit, having made sure everything was signed off from a player welfare and health perspective.
“I think there’s lots of, I guess, levels of confidence that come with selecting someone of that age; that wouldn’t be a decision that we would make in isolation. Obviously the medical team would have input, Rugby Australia are obviously all over it and it’s very important to get all those people having input.
“It wouldn’t be just a Draconian decision based on the needs of the team; the needs of the best interests of the athlete are exceedingly important…and the younger they are, the more important that is, because you want to still see the individual playing when he’s 35, hopefully he’s going to be a long-term project.
“So it wouldn’t be a decision just made in isolation and very important to get that right, but age is no barrier.”
Rugby Australia boss Rob Clarke on Wednesday night made it clear that no deal had yet been done with Suaalii, but that the governing body remained excited by the prospect of signing the teenager.
Clarke also hit out at some sections of the media, including the irresponsible speculation around the value of RA’s contract and the pressure that might be placing on Suaalii.
The RA boss also took the opportunity to talk up the opportunities that rugby can offer and that the NRL does not, a prospect Penney also alluded to on Thursday.
“Yeah, stay with rugby and I think that’s a key thing, he’s been a rugby boy,” Penney said of Suaalii’s time with The King’s School in Sydney and the various representative side he had made as a result.
“Rugby Australia, it’s great credit to them, have been working really hard to retain their best talent and it’s not easy in this environment at the moment, there’s been so much turmoil around the organisation over the last few months. But there seems to be a real energy and positivity around what’s happening going forward, around retention of the boys that we want to keep, so engaging them really early on and obviously interacting with those exceptionally talented school level players and younger age level players that are going to be the future of Australian rugby.
“So it’s challenging at the moment but the future looks really, really bright. And having someone like Joseph, he’s intimated that he’s going to commit to rugby, the game can do a lot for someone like him. It’s a global game, there’s sevens and there’s obviously the Olympics into next year. So in the short to medium term for someone like him, there’s a life development opportunity outside of rugby that rugby provides on the back of its global identity.
“So if it’s deemed by him and his parents that rugby’s the way to go; we have a history of nurturing and looking after young men and we’d love to be a part of that process.”