Whether you like it or not, the battle for Joseph Suaalii is back on.
Almost two years after the three-way tussle between Rugby Australia, the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Sydney Roosters, all reports suggest RA are coming back for Suaalii with a vengeance.
Breathless scribblers describe a Moore Park “war chest” of sorts, and union’s plan on making Suaalii their marquee man ahead of the 2025 Lions Tour and 2027 men’s World Cup.
Fur is flying.
RA chair Hamish McLennan is trading barbs with ARLC boss Peter V’landys, big NRL names such as Angus Crichton, Cameron Murray and Latrell Mitchell are being floated as converts, and outrageous sums of money have been rumoured.
It’s all quite fun provided you bring your own salt.
So let’s turn it down a notch and see whether there’s anything in this – or any need.
Few athletes have been so hyped so early and there’s no denying the 19-year-old Suaalii is a freakish talent who I’m sure will succeed in whichever code or team he lands.
Here’s a quick snapshot for those who’ve missed out.
Suaalii ditched the Rabbitohs at the end of 2020 after starring as a junior in both league and union.
Since debuting in the NRL as a 17-year-old, he’s scored 16 tries in 23 games for Easts and will almost certainly feature in next year’s Origin Series for NSW after being named in this year’s wider squad.
He’s a natural fullback regardless of code and will likely be a star for the next decade wherever he lands.
But the rumoured $10-million, 5-year-deal by RA for Suaalii reported in Tuesday’s Australian was preposterous and dealt with as such by McLennan.
No player is worth that money. Period.
Sure, RA have form in opening their wallets to seduce the next big thing in league over to union.
But the payoff is never guaranteed.
It famously happened ahead of the 2003 RWC with the then-ARU successfully courting Matt Rogers, Lote Tuqiri and Wendell Sailor.
And with that tournament surplus in excess of $44 million, many would argue Rogers, Tuqiri and Sailor played a major role in marketing union to a broader domestic audience.
But since then, the Wallaby gold has been worn by other league converts with little to no impact both on and off the field.
Cooper Vuna (2 caps), Timana Tahu (4 caps), Ryan Cross (18 caps), and Karmichael Hunt (6 caps) all enjoyed NRL before experiencing middling to poor returns at Test level.
Playmaker Berrick Barnes (51 caps) proved the most dependable convert of the late naughties/early 10s era with a 66% win record but neither he nor the aforementioned brought genuine star power or marketability to the game.
Today, things are a little different. Our current crop of cross-coders are tracking nicely.
The Wallabies are juggling at least four converts in their ranks and of those, one has serious star power and another should.
Marika Koroibete (45* caps) has entrenched himself as a World XV winger and Australia’s best player (on current form) since trading his Storm jersey for a Rebels strip.
He’s the kind of player kids name-drop as they score training tries on a Tuesday night and highlights like the Mapimpi tackle are a promoter’s dream.
Consider him both a drawcard and a success.
Former leaguey Tom Wright (12* caps) is in contention for the other wing spot and showing good signs while league junior-turned-Brumbies hooker Billy Pollard (1* cap) hasn’t had a proper opportunity to shine at Test level and neither have pulling power – yet.
Reds flyer Suliasi Vunivalu (1* cap) is the enigma here. Two NRL premierships (’17, ’20) made “Suli” a household name for league fans and RA would’ve counted on his (reported) $700,000-a-year union deal from 2020-2021 to drag plenty of eyeballs.
Hamstring injuries and off-field incidents have hindered that transition but his late 2022 return to the Reds was impressive and a Spring Tour + full 2023 SRP season would have administrators licking their lips.
Now there’s a long way to go before a gold jersey is mortgaged – the likes of incumbent Wright, Andrew Kellaway and Reds teammate Jordan Petaia all present strong options for Dave Rennie to consider – but there’s no denying “Suli” would be a powerful addition both on and off the field.
Which, in turn, brings me back to Suaalii.
Yes, I believe he is a generational talent and will be incredible wherever he goes.
I’m sure he’d succeed in union and would love to see him give it a crack later on, whether that’s domestically or abroad.
But regardless of whether you want his pulling power, athleticism or X-Factor, we’ve already been down that road and found those puzzle pieces from all over.
It’s just about how they’re assembled.
If it’s about a fullback fix, Kellaway (26), Reece Hodge (28) and Jock Campbell (27) are all approaching their prime and would bring experience to Lions 2025 and RWC 2027.
If it’s a bruising centre, Hunter Paisami (24), Len Ikitau (23), Lalakai Foketi (27) and Samu Kerevi (28) are in the frame for both major events.
And if it’s about a young crowd-pleasing winger to partner Koroibete, look to Vunivalu (26), Petaia (22) and Wright (25) with the likes of Dylan Pietsch (24) , Mark Nawaqanitawase (21) and sevens flyer Corey Toole (22) closing the gap.
So despite Suaalii’s talent, if the young man’s asking price is within earshot of reported sums, I’d be strongly encouraging Rugby Australia to rely our existing stable and spend that money on development officers, aligning state schools with junior union clubs and transitioning the women’s game towards professionalism.
Rugby – The Roar