Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan has encouraged Australia’s Super Rugby teams to recruit Argentinians following the Pumas’ historic win against the All Blacks. McLennan’s idea has a lot of merit, in theory at least, but any further loosening of Australia’s foreign player rules would need to be done wisely to ensure the integrity of Australian rugby, both financially and competitively.
It is abundantly clear Australia does not have sufficient depth to support five Super Rugby franchises and RA knows it, which is why McLennan is prepared to open the door to the Argentinians and whoever else may want to play here. The addition of Argentinian players would certainly help to improve the standard and competitiveness, but how would Australia afford them?
The majority of Argentina’s Test players such as inspirational captain Pablo Matera play for rich French clubs in the Top 14, which Australian sides cannot compete with financially.
RA recently signed a new broadcast agreement with Nine Entertainment Co, believed to be worth around $26m a year in cash, less than half the previous figure of $57m. Not only that, Australian rugby’s TV revenue will presumably be split five ways instead of four following the return of the Western Force to the fold.
Australia’s Super Rugby sides used to receive an annual $5.5m participation fee from RA, which is now expected to be significantly lower, not leaving a lot in the kitty to chase high-priced foreigners. If Australia does somehow manage to attract more foreign players, especially high-profile ones, RA must ensure they are included in the Super Rugby salary cap or risk financial disaster.
Until recently Australian teams were allowed to recruit one marquee foreign player and one development foreign player who could become eligible for the Wallabies. The Melbourne Rebels, the 2011 expansion franchise, were given an exemption which permitted them to recruit a dozen or so foreign players, but they were not included in the salary cap, which contributed to financial problems at the club that required a RA bail-out.
While restrictions still apply to the Waratahs and Reds because they produce the majority of Australia’s players, the Force, Rebels and Brumbies have been given more latitude to recruit foreign players as a result of their relatively small player populations.
The Force, who did not win a game in Super Rugby AU this year, need to aggressively recruit to become competitive and have already signed Argentinians Tomas Cubelli, who previously played for the Brumbies, and Julian Montoya, as well as veteran Irish fullback Rob Kearney. There is talk more Pumas are on their way to Perth.
With more and more Australian players heading overseas, RA will need to fill the gaps in the Super sides with foreign players, which is fine as long as the clubs live within their means.
With Super Rugby being shown on free-to-air television for the first time next year it is vitally important the product is attractive, which means RA must address the player depth issue. But any relaxation of Australia’s foreign player also needs to be done smartly so that it does not have adverse effects on the Wallabies.
RA should allow Australian teams to recruit more foreign players of any nationality, not just Argentinians, but they would still need to monitor the numbers and ensure Australian players’ pathways to the Wallabies were not blocked. The French national team suffered for many years from the Top 14 clubs’ laissez-faire approach to recruiting foreign players and have now imposed stricter restrictions, which is expected to result in Les Bleus performing better in the Test arena.
For example, it would be counter-productive for all of Australia’s Super Rugby teams to recruit a foreign five-eighth and impede the progress of rookie No 10s such as Noah Lolesio and Will Harrison.
If Australia were unable to lure more individual Argentinian players to these shores, another option would be to re-locate an Argentinian team to Australia to compete in Super Rugby. The Jaguares, who played in Super Rugby from 2015 and reached the final last year, have been left out of plans for a future trans-Tasman competition, largely because of their geographic isolation.
World Rugby is looking to establish an Americas tournament with Argentina playing teams such as the US, Canada, Brazil and Uruguay, but that might be years away. An Argentine team located in Australia could certainly add as much, if not more, value to a trans-Tasman competition as the Japanese Sunwolves or a Pasifika franchise.
After their upset win against the All Blacks all eyes will be on the Pumas on Saturday to see if they can replicate that performance against the Wallabies in Newcastle. If they win both of their Tri-Nations Tests against the Wallabies, they will win the tournament and collect a major international trophy for the first time in their history.
In that event Argentine players will be in even greater demand by overseas clubs, which means their price will go up, making it even more difficult for Australian clubs to recruit them.