The Wallabies’ spring tour of Britain has been thrown into disarray after three players – Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon – withdrew from the squad on the eve of departure to re-join their Japanese League One clubs.
Rugby Australia is reportedly furious over the star trio’s apparent choice of club over country – with some justification – and officials now face taking decisive, yet prudent, action to ensure preparation for the 2023 World Cup is not disrupted by uncertainty over the availability of overseas-based players.
Many rugby followers would give everything they own to wear the gold jersey just once, so it is understandable that administrators and fans are annoyed that a player would turn down an opportunity to represent his country. It is certainly a bad look for Australian rugby, but it would be rash to judge Cooper, Kerevi and McMahon too harshly.
Are they a coalition of the unwilling or victims of circumstance?
Recalling the trio to the international fold this year after long absences from the Test arena was done on the hop. After the Wallabies were thrashed 3-0 by the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup series, they were added to the squad for the Rugby Championship.
Cooper and Kerevi, in particular, played key roles in a stunning turnaround, which saw the Wallabies win five Tests in a row against South Africa, Argentina and Japan. All of a sudden, Cooper and Kerevi became integral to coach Dave Rennie’s planning for the World Cup and the coach was keen for the pair to tour Britain.
The problem was, while the pair were contracted to RA for the Rugby Championship, they never signed to play on the European leg of the spring tour.
There have been conflicting reports about why they are not touring. Some suggest the players’ Japanese clubs pressured them not to go, but others have indicated the clubs were happy for them to tour.
Under World Rugby regulations, clubs are obliged to release players for Test duty during international windows, which includes the November Tests in Britain. But Cooper, Kerevi and McMahon were not subject to the regulation because they are no longer contracted to RA.
The Japanese clubs could not force the trio not to tour, but neither could Rugby Australia demand that they do so.
It has been reported that the trio communicated their reluctance to tour Britain early in the piece, but Wallabies management wanted to try to change their minds. They were named in the Rennie’s 37-man squad for the tour even though there was uncertainty about their availability.
Ironically, Cooper played in the 32-23 win against Japan in Oita last Saturday in a Test outside the international window.
Some may argue that players should not pick and choose which Tests they play for the Wallabies, and generally that is fair, but the Japan-based players’ circumstances are a little bit different to Australian players in the domestic Super Rugby competition.
The Wallabies’ Super Rugby players will have a good break after the tour, but Japan’s League One starts in early January. With two weeks of isolation after the tour due of Covid-19 restrictions, the three players would not have had much time to prepare for the Japanese season, keeping in mind the clubs are their main employers.
The trio found themselves in a difficult situation and were forced to make a hard choice, which has upset a lot of Australian stakeholders in the game. But their decision not to tour Britain should not dissuade RA from continuing to select overseas-based players, including these three players.
Rugby Australia is in uncharted territory after loosening the so-called Giteau Law under which overseas-based players with more than 60 Tests caps are eligible for the national team.
Rennie selected six overseas-based players in the spring tour squad – Cooper, Kerevi, McMahon and France-based Rory Arnold, Tolu Latu and Will Skelton, while France-based utility back Kurtley Beale is set to be added to cover for injuries at fullback.
Only Cooper and Beale qualified under the original Giteau Law, the others became eligible after the rule was amended. The eligibility of overseas-based players will be reviewed after the tour but the current drama may give ammunition to those who believe there should be tight restrictions on foreign-based players.
But this would be a backward step. The impact of Cooper and Kerevi demonstrated clearly that the Wallabies need Australia’s best players – no matter where they play club or provincial rugby – to be competitive against the leading teams in the world.
At the same time, RA needs clarity on the availability of overseas-based players so Rennie can properly prepare for the World Cup. RA must identify the overseas-based players who are required for the World Cup and sit down with them to work out a sensible solution.
It would be a good idea for overseas-based players to sign contracts to play in all of the international windows leading up to the 2023 World Cup to prove they are committed to the cause, while RA may need to show some flexibility regarding availability to ensure the Wallabies are at their very best at the showpiece event.