If a week is a long time in politics it can be an eternity in the struggle between rugby league and rugby union over key players.
When the Wallabies returned from a rather ordinary European tour early this week, the focus was on recruiting rugby league players to boost union’s ranks.
But today the boot is very much on the other foot with at least one Wallaby star wanting to switch to rugby league BEFORE next year’s Rugby World Cup, and another rumoured to be keen to do so as soon as possible.
Mat Rogers, who switched codes to rugby union in 2001 after seven league Test appearances and a very successful playing career with the Cronulla Sharks, apparently wants to join NRL newcomers, the Gold Coast Titans, for the 2007 season. He has already signed a contract to join the club in 2008.
Dissatisfaction with coach John Connolly’s team selections on the recent Wallabies tour has caused Rogers to rethink his plans for 2007.
If he decides to seek an early release, the Titans and the NRL will fall over backwards to facilitate what would be a significant PR coup for rugby league in view of the posturing by the ARU about “raiding” rugby league’s player ranks.
It will present the ARU with a real quandary. Releasing Rogers would set a precedent, but does union really want in its World Cup team next year a player who would rather be playing in another code?
But an even more successful ex-league player is also thinking about a return to the 13-a-side game. Lote Tuqiri left the Broncos in 2001 and has been the best performing former league player in the Wallabies ever since.
A host of NRL clubs is already lining up to talk to Lote if he decides to switch codes. That will force the ARU to offer him a contract after the World Cup worth a lot more than it had in mind a week ago.
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But if he wants to return to rugby league – and senior league officials are very confident he does – he will have to take a substantial pay cut, or the NRL will have to ease its salary cap restrictions. And it will be under enormous pressure to do so.
The news this week has come as a relief to David Gallop and the NRL. Instead of worrying about how to prevent NRL players being poached by the ARU, rugby league officialdom can sit back and enjoy the position in which Rogers and possibly Tuqiri have put the ARU – and John Connolly.