The Australian Rugby Union is digging its heels in on the controversial issue of player sabbaticals, with chief executive Bill Pulver declaring there is ”zero appetite” for relaxing Australia’s strict rules on Test eligibility.
Despite remarks made by ARU board member and Test great John Eales urging the organisation to be ”more creative” in its attempts to hold on to marquee players, Pulver all but shut the door on change ahead of a lunch in Sydney on Thursday. ”I’m not sure what John said so I’m not commenting on his remarks specifically, but the issue of the player contracting rules has been front and centre in our board discussions since I’ve been on board for the past 18 months,” he said. ”I can tell you there is zero appetite to change the policy that requires Wallabies to be playing domestic rugby in advance of being selected for the Wallabies.”
With fears circulating that Australia faces a mass exodus of its biggest stars after next year’s World Cup, Eales told Fox Sports that the time would come when the ARU would have to look at different ways to retain its best players. ”We’ve seen the All Blacks do it, giving people sabbaticals, and in the sabbaticals they can either have a rest or go and play on a lucrative contact overseas,” he told Rugby HQ last week. ”So I’m sure we have to be creative in some different ways.”
Dual international Israel Folau weighed in on the debate this week, saying it would be ”nice” if a select group of players had the opportunity to take up short-term contracts in Europe or Japan but still be eligible for Wallabies selection.
Pulver all but rejected their calls outright and scotched speculation that a subcommittee recently formed to review the ARU’s contracting policies would countenance the issue of sabbaticals. ”There is a lot of discussion around this but I have to be clear: I have zero appetite to change it,” Pulver said on Thursday. ”I think there’s a general level of support in the Australian rugby community that we want our best players playing in Australia. If you change that policy, it is my view that you are likely to lose more players to overseas markets, and that’s not what we want. Local crowds want to see their players playing in this country, the current policy allows that, and that’s why there is really no appetite to change it.”
Rugby Union Players’ Association chief Greg Harris also corrected suggestions the association had been invited to participate in the subcommittee’s deliberations. ”I have had some discussions with the ARU about contracts but at the end of the day I’m not surprised by the remarks because most of our discussions have been around a rather inflexible approach to an international labour market position,” Harris said. ”No one in Australian rugby is advocating a wholesale change in policy across the board. Any constructive dialogue on the matter would entail proper and careful consideration of the options and how things are managed.”
A key battleground is the contracting timeline, with all current deals holding players in Australia until December 31 the year their contracts finish, with some exceptions granted early release at the end of the Rugby Championship or final Bledisloe Cup Test, in October. RUPA and player agents have long argued that players not selected in Wallabies squads for the Rugby Championship should be allowed to leave after they have fulfilled their Super Rugby commitments.
Pulver took a hard line on this issue as well. ”That’s been a constant source of dialogue with the Players’ Association and some of the players, but again there’s really little appetite to review that as well. Particularly with the elite players that you’re talking about. Your national coach is fielding a team right up until December and he doesn’t want to remove access to any of that elite talent.”
Folau is one of a number of players who will come off contract after the World Cup. The ARU will struggle to match the money on offer from Europe and Japan, but could allow him the freedom to take up offers that would see him miss the spring tour and arrive back midway through the Super Rugby season. Pulver said he hoped Folau stayed in the game but reiterated his position. ”When it comes to that policy, I really do not see it changing and I think the logic’s pretty compelling,” he said.
”Why would you choose Wallabies from overseas markets, which would most likely then allow a serious exit of playing talent from this country and dilute the calibre of our competition? That’s not what we want to do with the game in Australia.”