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Melbourne – The Wallabies’ emphatic 3-0 series win over France In June might convey the impression that all is rosy in rugby Down Under but the game’s powerbrokers fear a quickening player drain could bring the code to its knees.
While some jostle for positions in Ewen McKenzie’s squad a year out from the World Cup in England, other “players of national interest” are rushing to the exits, boarding flights to Europe and Japan to boost their salaries and see an exotic part of the world long denied by the pursuit of a gold jersey.
Western Force winger Nick Cummins’ surprise announcement last week that he would quit Australian rugby to play in Japan’s Top league has brought the issue into sharp focus.
Though starting in all three of the tests against Les Bleus, Cummins’ absence can be covered by McKenzie, who has a number of classy backs at his disposal for that position.
But the loss of the hirsute 26-year-old was another reminder that Australia is fighting a losing battle in rugby’s global market for talent.
“There’s substantially more money to be had overseas,” Greg Harris, chief executive of the local Rugby Union Players’s Association (Rupa), told Reuters.
“Players are no different to anyone else in their own workplace with respect to money and other factors.”
Apart from Cummins, who cited a need to earn more money to look after ailing family members, Australia will bid adieu to a number of top players including 14-test lock Kane Douglas, who played all three matches against the touring British and Irish Lions last year but has signed with Leinster.
Backrower Ben Mowen, appointed Wallabies captain last year by McKenzie, will head to Montpellier in France’s lucrative Top 14.
The drain is expected to become a flood after the World Cup, leaving the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) with concerns about the quality of the local product at a time when the game is struggling to pay the bills.
Unlike neighbours New Zealand, whose obsession with the game has driven the All Blacks to two World Cups and the world number one ranking, rugby struggles to compete with rival football codes for fans and broadcast dollars in Australia.
Australian Rules football and rugby league dominate the landscape, with the fledgling A-League soccer competition also threatening rugby’s share.
The ARU has repeatedly warned the game faces going broke and will take a big hit to revenues from the loss of test matches due to the quadrennial World Cup.
Already labouring to support five teams in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition, the ARU has taken a hard line on player retention, demanding they play a full season of rugby on home soil before becoming eligible for national duty.
But as the local game struggles and foreign markets grow stronger, a Wallabies jersey has become less alluring and the policy appears to be failing.
“I can understand their perspective, however, if you start to look at losing players, you need to take a flexible approach to an international labour market situation,” Harris said.
“If you’re in a two-handed poker game and you’ve got less money than the other, tell me how you would adapt. You’ve got to play it smart.
“That’s a policy decision for the ARU.”
New Zealand also requires players to commit to playing rugby at home in order to win an All Blacks jersey but has shown it will be flexible for long-serving marquee players, allowing flyhalf Dan Carter and captain Richie McCaw to take sabbaticals.
That’s a luxury Australia cannot afford, according to ARU chief Bill Pulver, who last month said he had “zero appetite” for the idea.
Twenty-five year-old Douglas, serving out his last season with Sydney Super Rugby side New South Wales, was rated a shoo-in for McKenzie’s squad for the World Cup, but said he was comfortable with his decision to give up the chance.
He also said the ARU was right to play hard-ball.
“I think they’ve got to be strong on their stance and encourage boys to stay and play in Australia and for Australia,” he told reporters in Sydney this week.
“I’d love to (play in the World Cup) but I knew my decision would not allow that so I’ve come to grips with that.”
Retaining players like dual code international Israel Folau, a try-scoring machine at Super Rugby and international level, is considered vital to the health of the game in Australia but the brilliant 25-year-old has given no assurances beyond the World Cup.
The ARU made the decision easier for some aspiring internationals, by cutting test match payments last year.
Like Folau, Wallabies prop Pek Cowan has voiced his support for players to be allowed to head overseas to exploit their market potential, so long as they have proven themselves valuable servants and will definitely come back.
“Just for the pure fact that change is as good as a holiday,” the 28-year-old told Reuters.
A teammate of Cummins at Western Force, Cowan said he aimed to remain at the Perth-based club for a 10th season but the re-signing process was taking “a bit longer” than he had hoped.
“Clearly Super Rugby is a massive priority and we don’t want to let players go overseas to chase a bit of coin, but I think players who have been around for a while definitely deserve an opportunity,” he said. – Reuters