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Wallabies future lies with the NRC, not the NRL

Not Wallabies quality: The Kangaroos forward pack wouldn’t displace any current Wallaby. Photo: Paul Kane Lost opportunity: Cameron Smith could have been the Wallabies long-term halfback in a different reality. Photo: Paul Kane
Nanjing Night Net

Whenever I watch the Kangaroos, as I did on Saturday night, I’m reminded of one of many favourite yarns out of New Zealand.

It concerns a talented young player at Hamiltons Boys’ High School in New Zealand, a noted rugby nursery that produced Henry Speight, Sean Maitland and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, among others.

This kid was gifted. All the Super Rugby teams were interested but there was a problem. He was playing up off the field, a bit of a tearaway.

Exasperated, his school rugby coaches gave him a final warning – a threat, really.

“Look son, if you don’t sort yourself out we’re going to send you to the Warriors.”

It’s probably apocryphal, but nonetheless it gives you a good indication of the pecking order in New Zealand. By and large, the best gravitate towards the All Blacks. So when the Kangaroos struggle against the Kiwis, as they have in recent years, it gives me pause to consider their true quality, despite the oft-repeated line that all the Wallabies need is more league players.

When you look at the Kangaroos forward pack, the idea that many – or any – could go into the Wallabies and provide an instant lift just isn’t realistic. The body shapes and technical requirements for tight five rugby forwards and No.7s immediately rule out the entire Kangaroos pack. The only positions that you could argue might work for a code swapper are No.6 and No.8.

The Kangaroos pack that played in Perth on Saturday included Matt Scott, Shannon Boyd, Boyd Cordner, Matt Gillett, David Klemmer, Tyson Frizell and Sam Thaiday – they are all good, tough players but what would do with them? Athletically, there would be question marks about some of them going the 80. My pick of that bunch are Gillett and Cordner, but if you are comparing them with Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino, or the likes of Billy Vunipola, Toby Faletau and Maro Itoje, I’m far from convinced they would stand out in that company.

As for the backs, well let’s get the obvious out of the way. If, 10 years ago, rugby could have picked up Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston, then it would have won the lottery.

Smith, frankly, is incredible. He would have made an outstanding halfback and lifted the whole Wallabies group over the past decade. But that’s living in an alternative reality. They are league men and at this stage of their careers would be terrible value for rugby. Of the younger Kangaroos backs, I’d pass on every one.

So where does the Wallabies’ future lie? In developing its own and, more broadly thinking, developing the competitions that excite players. With these two things in mind, the addition of a Fijian team to the NRC is a credit to all involved.

The involvement of World Rugby is key, too. First, it indicates that the ARU can be a player again, an organisation that gets things done. And second, there are longer-term implications.

Sure the ARU might be reticent about over-selling the benefits, but this looks – in part – like a clever, market-driven strategy to tackle the question of athletes being lost to Europe’s clubs.

Stronger: The Fijian team in the NRC will greatly improve the standard of competition. Photo: Getty Images

You can’t stop players from seeking overseas contracts with regulation. It is punitive and it doesn’t work. For example, World Rugby might listen to arguments about the three-year residency period for eligibility being extended to five years, but it also knows the clubs are already ahead of that game. The French have already started recruiting players younger. Five years won’t stop the flow, it’ll just encourage more cradle-snatching.

What might stop it, however, is giving the Pacific Island players an opportunity to earn a living by doing what they love closer to the crucial support networks that are crucial for young players. This is why I hope, with every fibre in my body, that this Fiji NRC team is a success.

In addition, Australia knows that any competition – NRC today, possibly Super Rugby tomorrow – that has a Fijian team in it will be enhanced.

The NRC is already a better competition this year than last. It is also being nourished by the attitude towards it shown by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika – picking Tolu Latu based on NRC form was a great message.

The Wallabies’ future is developing their own, and that’s already begun.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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