Rugby Australia (RA) CEO Phil Waugh insists the days of big-money raids on the NRL are over after promising to deliver a more sustainable future for the ailing footy code in Australia. Waugh's bold claim comes after RA poached Sydney Roosters superstar Joseph Suaalii earlier this year, with the NRL star agreeing on a reported $4.8 million three-year deal from 2025, described as "insane" by many critics.
NRL CEO Andrew Abdo confirmed this week that rugby league bosses were looking into salary cap relief for clubs to target cross-code raids, with the issue set to be discussed at next month’s ARL Commission board meeting. It comes amid reports the Roosters are in talks with off-contract Wallabies winger Mark Nawaqanitawase, while teenage NSW Waratahs sensation Max Jorgensen has also been linked with a switch to the NRL.
Waugh - who only took over as RA chief executive in June after Suaalii's big-money move had already been signed off on - has promised that similar eye-watering raids on the 13-man code will be a thing of the past. It's a distinct change of tune from what Eddie Jones was saying before quitting as Wallabies coach, with the 63-year-old frequently talking up the likelihood of union poaching more league talent.
However, RA's CEO says the 15-man game needs to get its finances in better order and start focusing on developing and nurturing talent from within its own stocks, as well as attracting new players to the sport. "I keep talking about being fiscally responsible because the game historically has spent more than we can afford," Waugh said.
"Which is why then I come back to what's the environment that we're creating to attract players? So it's not just all about money. You don't want to be attracting people just because of the money and then you don't have the environment sorted out.
"So we can't ignore the fact that we've got athletes, not just rugby league targeting them, but you'll have overseas clubs target them as well from a rugby perspective. And we need to ensure that we're creating an environment that people want to be here and we're filling stadiums and it's a real buzz around the game that we've experienced previously.
"But we're certainly not there right now." Waugh's admission appears to resonate with the growing sense in rugby league circles that the time has never been better to target top talent from within rugby union, due to the faltering standing of the code in the country.
RA CEO not interested in tug-of-war with NRL
Billionaire Roosters supremo Nick Politis claimed this week that Suaalii had already given his assurances that he'd return to the Tri Colours in 2028 after his three-year union deal comes to an end. The Roosters' reported interest in Wallabies pair Nawaqanitawase and Jorgensen could be viewed as Politis' way of getting even with RA for poaching Suaalii.
Waugh says he's not interested in engaging in a tug-of-war with the rival code and insists RA should instead focus on trying to restore the 15-man code to its former glories. "We certainly have a job to do in terms of actually getting our game in order to attract the best possible athletes," he said.
"And I do genuinely think that the international component of our game is compelling when you compare it to rugby league and to the AFL. But what we need to do is actually provide security to our players that they trust the administration and the direction we're taking the game."
The former Wallabies captain says it's his "absolute priority" to focus on pathways for young rugby talent in Australia to keep the best players in the game, rather than throwing big bucks at league stars. "I don't care if (young) people are playing league and AFL and other sports," he added.
"Just as long as they're experiencing rugby and then we've actually got a really clear pathway for those 15, 16, 17-year-olds to become Wallabies or Super Rugby players sooner than what they have historically. And I think we've seen that with Max (Jorgensen) coming straight out of school into the Waratahs. That's the journey that we'd like those top athletes to have."
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