Amid rumors of golfer Cameron Smith taking his money and running to LIV, Lalakai Foketi – a relatively unknown Test center – has shown there are still some things money can’t buy in professional sport. A Wallabies jersey in his case.
But for how long is the question, especially as Rugby Australia’s eligibility rules for next year’s World Cup rage on.
In March, Focetti, 27, was understood to have turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue working for the Whalers.
With his career at Waratahs curtailed by injury, he was offered a huge contract worth over $500,000 to join French Top 14 club Clermont.
He turned it down, but soon after Australian Ire Simmons took the money, he could no longer play for the Wolves under Rugby Australia’s new overseas player selection policy.
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Foketi, who made his debut against Wales last November, will make his first start in the number 12 shirt in the absence of Samu Kerevi and Hunter Paisamy.
Simmons and also Isaiah Perez are in line to play his third Test, eagerly named on the bench ahead of Noah Lolesio.
What do you think Lolesio, who played all three Tests for England, and two-time NRL premiership winner Suliasi Vanivalu must be thinking after parting ways?
After all, the duo recently re-signed with Rugby Australia.
Both now seem to be slipping down the pecking order, but in Vunivalu’s case, the high-profile recruit has only been given minutes on the bench at SCG.
However, Focetti’s decision to turn down the money is curious.
He is not the only Australian player to turn down overseas offers or return home in pursuit of a gold jersey.
Nick White and Matt Tomua have returned home ahead of the 2019 World Cup in search of a chance to play for the Welshmen.
Others. Like James O’Connor, he followed.
22-year-old starlet Nick Frost has turned down a deal to join Robbie Deans’ Panasonic Wild Knights in the Japanese League One.
After a cracking game for the Brumbies, Frost coach Dan McKellar opened up the possibility of an exit. RA, with the blessing of management and the Japanese club, effectively managed to get the second rower out of the deal.
It’s a different story for Focketty because as a centre-forward he still hasn’t made the first team for Rennie’s England series. Only injury, as well as Kerevi’s desire to represent Australia at the Commonwealth Games, called up the Waratahs.
Players like Focetti, as well as Hamish Stewart, who misses the Wallabies cap, are the bread and butter of domestic rugby. Without them, Down Under, the game would have invested too much into the few.
“I finished my studies and left. I started for the Rebels and then I went to France as a youngster and I quickly realized that this was my dream and that this was what I wanted to do with my rugby career.
“I’m grateful to be here and I’m working hard to get to this point now.
“With other options and things,[they]weren’t at the forefront of my mind. “My family are happy in Sydney, and that’s another big reason, but this will always be the highlight of rugby for me.”
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This is why the RA, privately or publicly, does not enjoy opening the floodgates and widely prefers overseas because it fears it will destroy Super Rugby and cripple their stakeholders, the Super Rugby franchises, especially in non-World Cup years.
Next year will be the litmus test. Even after Rennie floated the idea of adding an extra fourth “overseas” selection to the Rugby Championship ahead of their tour of Argentina, RA privately shut down any prospect of third-year international coach Rory Arnold being selected. Kerevi, Marika Koroibete and Quade Cooper are in the same group.
Season-ending injuries to Cooper and Kerevy saved Rennie from a dramatic decision.
However, for months, talks about canceling the eligibility criteria for the World Cup year have been reflected on the floor.
That remains to be seen and injuries can still have a clear impact.
But as world No. 2 golfer Smith settles for a reported $140 million to join the LIV Golf Series, the world’s sports stars are choosing cash over legacy.
Who can blame them? Private equity and newfound success seem to be the only way to keep the lid on the Wallabies heading overseas.
How sustainable it is is questionable, but with Australia hosting the World Cup in 2027 (men’s) and 2029 (women’s), the governing body will do its best to keep the players at home.