Rugby Australia have confirmed Mark Nawaqanitawase's defection to the NRL and Sydney Roosters, in a major coup for the 13-man code after Joseph Suaalii went the other way. The Wallabies winger will join the Roosters on a two-year deal in 2025 after Suaalii moves to the NSW Waratahs.
Nawaqanitawase has played 11 Test matches for the Wallabies since making his debut on last year's tour of Europe. The defection comes as another a big loss for Rugby Australia (RA) after the hugely disappointing showing at the recent World Cup.
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"We are disappointed, Mark has been a strong player over the last 12 months," RA chief executive Phil Waugh said in a statement on Thursday. "However, the outside backs are a position of strength for us, with great depth coming through. We are confident we are well-stocked with talented wingers for the future."
Rugby Australia also appeared to close the door on Nawaqanitawase appearing for the Wallabies in 2024 before he heads to the NRL. "Rugby Australia wishes to thank Nawaqanitawase for his efforts in his 11 Test appearances, as well as for the Waratahs and the Australia Sevens team at the Commonwealth Games," the organisation said in a statement.
The silver lining for the 15-man code is that the winger's two-year contract with the Roosters means he could return to rugby union ahead of the World Cup in Australia in 2027. However his code-switch will prevent him from facing the British and Irish Lions in 2025.
Nawaqanitawase’s manager Andrew Fairbairn told the Sydney Morning Herald it was an “emotional” decision. “This has been an intense process for Mark and his family, which has taken some time to navigate,” Fairbairn said.
“At 23, Mark feels now is the best time to stay in Australia, but have a new experience in the Roosters program for 2025 and 2026. Trent Robinson has a long line of success with working with rugby union talent – which ultimately was the catalyst in Mark’s decision.
“A lot of good people, including the fans, have been involved in Mark’s journey, which has made this decision an emotional one. We hope the door will be open for Mark to return to the Wallabies fold in the future.”
Rugby Australia calls ends to raids of NRL talent
Speaking last month, Waugh said there would be no more big-money raids for NRL stars like Suaalii. NRL CEO Andrew Abdo earlier confirmed 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 this month’s ARL Commission board meeting.
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.
"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."
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