More drama and controversy has surrounded Rugby Australia in the last two years than all other international unions combined. Now, they appear to have successfully convinced Joseph Suaalii, a sixteen year old utility back being touted as a generational talent, from signing a $1.7m contract with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Last night they denied the reported figure of $3m. Regardless, the tug of war surrounding Suaalii feels cynical, hollow and disorientating.

Sam Burgess has labelled the youngster ‘pretty special,’ saying: ‘I’ve seen him play and I’ve seen him first hand training with the first team and forget his athletic ability and everything you see… What I saw in Joseph Suaalii that day was we took him to the edge of the cliff and he hung on for dear life and he had the courage of a 25 to 28-year-old man.’

The bravery of a sixteen year old training with the South Sydney first team squad is remarkable, for sure. Suaalii, though, is six foot five and fifteen stone. As for his talent, a cursory glance at Suaalii’s highlight reel affirms that the hype is grounded in skill and performance. Capable of playing in various outside back roles in both codes, it is little surprise that Dave Rennie, the new Wallabies coach, has made securing Suaali a priority.

‘Guys like Joseph, they command a lot of attention and clearly Souths are very interested in him and have thrown some serious money in front him,’ Rennie said last month. ‘So he’s just an example of the type of kids that we want to keep in our game, but it’s a competitive market and it’s not easy.

That the Wallabies coach would be so personally and publicly involved in the signature of a sixteen year old appears a strange state of affairs. Particularly given Rugby Australia’s present financial predicament. It is reported that Rugby Australia have been forced to lay off 40% of its staff. The kind of money being touted regarding Suaali – given that he appears to be close to turning down an offer of $1.7m from the Rabbitohs – surely flies in the face of all sensible financial management.
Then there is the other side of this: do we really want to be waving millions in the face of a sixteen year old boy?  Surely the centre of such a public and unwieldy tug of war is not a healthy place for young player to be? Why is it that ex-pros are sat on national television debating the prospects of an individual, who, despite his obvious physical and mental maturity, remains essentially a child?
The last player to generate such a media storm was probably Kalyn Ponga, after his frankly absurd schoolboy highlight reel circulated online. Ponga became the highest paid teenager in NRL history in 2018. Now 22, he has matured into an exceptional player, and one would not bet against Suaalii doing the same.
However, there is a duty of care issue at play here too: one has also to question how it is that these prodigious talents gain such a reputation, and whether the process can be at all healthy. Rennie’s phrase ‘competitive market’ sits uneasily with me. These are people, children, not commodities to be bought and traded and invested in.
Ultimately, Joseph Suaalii is a school kid who is exceptionally good at rugby. Apparently, he is also pretty handy at basketball and Aussie rules. He has never played a senior match. At the risk of sounding trite, to have any sort of normal life beyond rugby he needs to be doing normal sixteen year old things, and not involved a multi-million dollar Australian media circus.
The whole debacle reeks. Suaalii and his family have reportedly been flown into a farm owned by Rabbitoh owner Russel Crowe, with the Hollywood star attempting to woo the youngster into committing his future to Souths. There is talk that he has been promised a role in the Australian rugby sevens side at the rearranged Tokyo Olympics should he opt for union.
All in all, such shameless ploys and financial bravado is a sad indictment of modern rugby, particularly in Australia, where the codes regularly compete to attract the youngest talent. It cannot be good for the player. Joseph Suaalii is a sixteen year old boy, Dave Rennie and Russel Crowe would do well to keep that in mind.
Written by Joe Ronan.