EIGHTY-EIGHT players have left the National Rugby League to play in Europe over the past three years, taking with them almost 11,000 first-grade games’ worth of experience. But an agent for an English Super League team warned Australians had only seen the tip of the iceberg.
While the World Cup organisers continue to promote the tournament as a festival of football, cashed-up Super League scouts and French rugby operatives view it as a veritable smorgasbord of talent.
"I’m at the Tonga-Samoa match and there is representatives from the 12 Super League clubs here,” Mick Robinson, formerly of Castleford and now in Australia as a talent scout, told The Sun-Herald on Friday night.
"Brian Noble [Wigan] is here… I can see Nigel Wright [Warrington assistant coach] is watching… name an English club and they’ll have a scout here. We’re all after the same thing the best of the best.”
Australian authorities have taken false comfort in the Rugby Football League’s (RFL) decision in England to lower the quota of imports permitted to play for Super League clubs from eight to six. Robinson warned it would not stem the tide of quality players who’ll leave for Europe.
"That will take at least three years to bite,” he said of the rule, designed not to protect the NRL but to force England to develop home-grown talent. "The reality is if eight foreign players were with the club before the rule came in, they’ll remain there. Foreign players will dominate. It is an issue that won’t go away.
"People will jump up and down and say it’s wrong and for Australia to introduce international transfer fees, that won’t work. It’ll open a legal case and a half… my understanding is it has restraint of trade written all over it.”
Former international Tommy Raudonikis was adamant Wests Tigers fullback Brett Hodgson should have been exempt from the salary cap instead of being forced out to play in England next year.
It’s an option the NRL has so far resisted.
Robinson, who lured Kiwi internationals Awen Guttenbeil, Sione Faumuina and Rangi Chase, as well as Danny Nutley, Dean Widders, Willie Manu, Richard Fa’aoso and Brent Sherwin to Castleford between 2006 and 2008, said the weak Australian dollar would also work in Europe’s favour.
"What you’re going to see is a concentrated assault on getting the best players in the NRL,” he said. "The Kolpak rule means the islanders have immediate entry to England, while clubs will also throw big dollars at Australia’s creme de la creme Greg Inglis, Darren Lockyer, Billy Slater, Cam Smith, Brett Stewart, Johnathan Thurston, Israel Folau the calibre of player England wants.
"The problem for Australia is serious if those players eventually see league as a business. Most of those players I mentioned are young, they’ve already achieved the highest honours by winning a grand final, playing Origin and representing Australia. What’s left for them?”
Representative players Hodgson, Chase, Jason Ryles, Michael Crocker, Steve Menzies, Luke Swain and Greg Eastwood have accepted Super League deals, while French rugby recruited league internationals Mark Gasnier, Sonny Bill Williams, Luke Rooney, Tony Puletua and David Vaealiki.
Former Wallabies coach John Connolly was adamant the French would behave at league’s World Cup like a cashed-up kid in a candy store.
"They’ll be here, don’t worry about that,” he said. "They know about rugby league now through Craig Gower and Mark Gasnier.”
League isn’t the only sport facing an exodus of players to Europe. New Zealand rugby player agent Rob Brady said it would only be a matter of time before the best All Blacks headed to Europe before the 2011 World Cup.
Brady’s comments came after Mark Evans, chief executive of English rugby union club Harlequins, told UK media that rugby sides from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa would soon be bereft of stars.
"Just ask yourself: Why would a 22-year-old want to play for the Western Force for $40,000 a year when he could be earning $560,000 at Stade Francais?” Evans said. "In 10 years’ time, 20 at most, all the best players in the world will be playing in Europe.”
It is feared he could also be describing league’s future.
Australian Rugby Union boss John O’Neill said his organisation’s policy of not selecting overseas-based Australians for the Wallabies needed to be reviewed.
O’Neill conceded times had changed and, estimating that the "English and French rugby economies were five times that of the southern-hemisphere nations”, placing a cap on how many Test players could go offshore might be the answer. "Opening the door in a controlled manner is sensible,” O’Neill said.
Former Australian Rugby League boss Ken Arthurson said England would continue to suffer if they maintained their reliance on importing NRL players.
"International rugby league needs England to be strong,” Arthurson said. "The International Board should step in and do something about it. I would go so far as limiting the international players to one or two at English clubs for the sake of the game.”
ARL boss Colin Love added: “It doesn’t say much for what they are doing to develop their own young players if they have to rely on places like Australia for talent.”