Rugby Australia (RA) chair Hamish McLennan has hit back in the war of words with rugby league after lashing the rival code's criticism of the big-money move for Joseph Suaalii. On Saturday, RA left fans of both codes in a frenzy after confirming it had signed Suaalii to a three-year contract worth around $1.6 million a year, from 2025 onwards.
The 19-year-old played schoolboy rugby, before switching codes and making his NRL debut as a 17-year-old in 2021. A freakishly talented outside back, Suaalii has been earmarked as a future great in the NRL, with news of his defection back to rugby after the 2024 season with the Roosters causing consternation across the league world.
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RA's eye-watering move for Suaalii puts him in line for a historic British and Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2025, as well as a home Rugby World Cup for the Wallabies in 2027. While those two blockbuster series and his whopping salary would have been tough to turn down, NRL fans have questioned how Suaalii will fare during three years in club rugby, with the NSW Waratahs.
ARLC boss Peter V'landys told The Sydney Morning Herald: "After Joseph plays rugby for a little while, he will get terribly bored and return to rugby league. That’s what the majority of the players who switch codes do.”
Suaalii's Roosters teammate Brandon Smith also took a cheeky swipe at RA and insisted that recruiting one outside back from rugby league isn't going to help the Wallabies beat the All Blacks. "Like (ARLC chair) Peter V'landys said, go over, get that easy money and then come back to the real sport," Smith said. "That $1.6 million could've been spent better on the grassroots of rugby."
The Daily Telegraph's veteran league reporter Phil 'Buzz' Rothfield said RA's move for Suaalii reeked of an act of "desperation" from a code he claims is suffering from an “identity crisis”. “If you saw three quarters of that (Wallabies) side walk down George Street would you know who any of them are? They’ve done this as a trophy signing," Rothfield told Sky Sports Radio’s Big Sports Breakfast.
“In the old days they had so many superstars, right now they have none - the game is struggling. The pathways are struggling, they’ve allowed so many great kids to come to rugby league. When they’re paying $1.6 million for a young fella that’s now elite in rugby league yet... I think it shows the desperation of rugby union.”
Rugby Australia hits back at criticism over Joseph Suaalii raid
However, McLennan has accused the rugby league community of acting like "cry babies" over the big-money raid on Suaalii. The RA chair argued that rugby's superior worldwide reach put it in a different class to rugby league, which is played and watched in far fewer countries around the world, despite being more popular around Australia.
“What a bunch of cry babies,” McLennan said. “They have completely thrown their toys out of the cot.
"Our elite players will earn more. We are in a different league as we are global with over 800 million people who follow the game and it is played in more than 100 countries. They can say what they want but we won’t be bullied.”
Suaalii is one of the most popular young players in rugby league and is poised to become the new face of a sport battling to attract similar ratings and domestic crowds as its rival football codes. New Wallabies coach Eddie Jones has made no secret of his desire to entice former schoolboy rugby players back to the 15-a-side game since he replaced Dave Rennie in January.
Suaalii has already been likened to legendary code-hoppers Israel Folau and Sonny Bill Williams and just like Williams before him, the Roosters are tipping Suaalii to circle back to the NRL after a spell in union. "Once he's built $3 million worth of houses, he'll come back and hopefully he'll come back to the Roosters," Roosters hooker Smith added.
Tri Colours halfback Sam Walker, who himself played rugby union for GPS school Ipswich Grammar, said Suaalii's skillset would make it easy for him to transition between either code. "He's an unbelievable athlete, he could do whatever he wanted to do," he said.
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