More could follow star to rugby union for ‘international exposure’

James Gordon
Joseph Suaalii

Photo by: Adam Davy/PA Wire/PA Images

It’s four months since the end of the World Cup yet we still await news of the next international programme, while one of its stars has pledged his future to rugby union.

The news of Joseph Suaalii’s defection to the 15-man code has resulted in criticism from some rugby league personalities Down Under.

Suaalii, 19, starred for Samoa at the World Cup, playing in all six games as they became the first Pacific Island nation to reach a final, where they were beaten by Australia.

His future focus will now be on playing for Australia in a different sport, with Rugby Australia having secured his services from 2025 with a view to him playing in the British Lions tour and in the home Rugby (Union) World Cup in 2027.

Despite his rugby union background, Suaalii has copped for flak for ditching the NRL and Sydney Roosters, where he is still under contract until the end of next season.

Is it a sign that there are worries over more players switching codes?

New Australia rugby union coach Eddie Jones, formerly of England, has made no secret of his interest in snaring players from the NRL to boost the Wallabies.

It is perhaps the threat of that which is motivating some of the harsh criticism of Suaalii, with fear of a talent drain to rugby union.

Only in Australia does rugby union have to fight for survival against rugby league. There are four times as many professional clubs in rugby league as there are in the 15-man code.

Since they lost the 2003 Rugby (Union) World Cup final on home soil to England, interest in the Wallabies has declined – participation numbers have slumped, TV audiences dwindled and attendances have plummeted at domestic and international matches.

The coronavirus pandemic pushed Rugby Australia to the brink of bankruptcy, but they are now fighting back.

With a World Cup on the horizon in 2027, Australia test matches are now being shown on free-to-air television which has helped to create some interest in Super Rugby and attending matches.

It may be that Suaalii’s background in rugby union was a big motivating factor.

But the Sydney Morning Herald reported that another “major NRL player” had contacted Rugby Australia chief Hamish McLennan about a switch.

The international conundrum

The undoubted draw for players to switch to rugby union is its vastly superior international game.

There are nine major rugby union nations that can all realistically compete at the top, while the likes of Japan, Georgia and Italy continue to show progress.

The draw of playing in front of huge crowds at the likes of Twickenham, Millennium Stadium or Eden Park is beyond anything rugby league can offer.

McLennan added: “He wants the international exposure, the big stadiums and the international events.

“At rugby we are more pro-player. Longer careers, greater life experience, more focused on player welfare and more fun.”

What makes that all the more frustrating, is that it’s the actions of the NRL and Australia that are stunting any hope of rugby league growing a meaningful international programme.

While Australia rugby union have nine games already scheduled in 2023, we do not know whether the Kangaroos will even play this year, let alone when.

Still waiting for 2023 autumn international news

The still on-going pay dispute between the NRL and its players has prevented any international matches being announced, given that the majority of elite internationals are reliant on the NRL making its players available.

That means England, off the back of hosting a moderately successful World Cup, have just one game scheduled so far in 2023 – a rather uninspiring home international against France at Warrington next month.

They hope that Tonga will be coming to the UK at the end of the year for a three-test series.

However, reports in Down Under of a possible Four Nations being held, excluding England, will no doubt have caused concern on these shores.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a secret plan has been put together to have a Four Nations involving Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga.

The four-week tournament would take place at the end of 2023, thus ruling Tonga out of a tour.

But the RFL are still hopeful of announcing a home series this autumn, possibly as early as this week, against the 2017 World Cup semi-finalists.

Love Rugby League opinion

The week-in, week-out draw of a high quality domestic competition and the finances that drives is the NRL’s biggest sell.

They are never going to be able to compete with rugby union in terms of international reach, and Australia’s attitude towards international games over the past decade or so suggests they want to prioritise the strength of the NRL.

The theory that international rugby league will grow the game is nice, but the finances at present say otherwise and the NRL can’t afford to take the hit on something “maybe” working over a period of time.

In many ways, the pressure of the international game is less for Australia. While they know that they can’t compete with the international exposure of rugby union, they do know that they can quite easily put together a competitive, decent quality international programme involving the Kangaroos, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea et al.

Where that leaves England, who still believe they need the international game to stay (or become) relevant, remains to be seen.

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