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Sunday Dec 3, 2023

Wallaby legend says latest League signing could be the best ever code hopper

Young NRL sensation Joseph Suaalii inked a three-year deal with Rugby Australia and the Waratahs back in March of this year.

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At the time, the signing was heralded as a watershed moment for Rugby Union down under as it looked to get back on par with rival code Rugby League.

A lot has since changed in Rugby Australia, with then-head coach Eddie Jones stepping down following a disappointing Rugby World Cup campaign.

The man who both hired Jones and made the play for Suaalii, Hamish McLennan has since departed too, having been ousted from his position.

Yet despite all of the upheaval and the disappointing abuse that Suaalii received from several people within the Rugby League community, former Wallaby and NRL star Lote Tuqiri was full of praise for the youngster.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Tuqiri, a dual international with 67 Test caps for the Wallabies, believes the 20-year-old has the potential to surpass the achievements of all those who have made the switch from rugby league to rugby union before him, including the likes of Israel Folau.

Tuqiri, who made his own transition in 2002, expressed his excitement about Suaalii joining the 15-man code, envisioning the young star’s ascent to the pinnacle of rugby union.

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The deal mandates that Suaalii will only be available for rugby union duties after the conclusion of the upcoming NRL season in October next year, committing him to the code until at least the 2027 Rugby World Cup, hosted in Australia.

Comparing Suaalii to cross-code legend Israel Folau, Tuqiri is optimistic about the youngster’s potential, asserting, “He could get to Israel Folau status; he probably could be better. Joseph Suaalii could be a force to be reckoned with.”

Tuqiri’s confidence in Suaalii’s abilities is such that he sees no issue with the 20-year-old being named in Australia’s squad for the end-of-year tour to Europe, even without having played a Super Rugby match.

Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh expressed hope that Suaalii would join the Wallabies on their tour, but Tuqiri acknowledges the potential for unrest in the squad due to Suaalii’s lack of Super Rugby experience.

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“I actually feel a bit sorry for the kid. He’s just doing the best for himself.

“There always will be a bit of conjecture. On the whole, if you play in a team environment, you want success and the best players.

“He’s not going back to rugby because he’s a dud. I think the players will get around it.

“I think there was a little bit (conjecture) when I was coming through … and I get that because guys have been playing rugby their whole life. You’ve just got to be good enough.

Reflecting on his own transition, Tuqiri acknowledges that when he switched to rugby union in 2002, there was some blowback, emphasising the importance of proving oneself in a team environment.

Despite the potential challenges, Tuqiri believes that Suaalii’s inclusion in the squad is justified, given the significant investment made in the young talent.

He points out that the recent poor performance of the Wallabies in the Rugby World Cup adds urgency to the need for talented players like Suaalii.

“At the end of the day, we weren’t good enough (at the World Cup). We picked blokes to go to the World Cup who we thought were good enough but weren’t. That quality was terrible.

“You’d be silly not to take him.

“They’ve made a big investment. He’s been playing at a high level with the Roosters. I think you try and fast-track him in.

“Whether he plays or not is another question. What we saw in the World Cup is not having enough experience. I think just being away with blokes will stand him in good stead going into 2025.” Tuqiri concluded.

However, Tuqiri acknowledges the current precarious state of Australian rugby, with the Wallabies recently registering their worst-ever World Cup performance.

He suggests that Suaalii may have some reservations about his decision, given the challenges facing the 15-man game in Australia. Tuqiri remains optimistic, stating, “He’s a young bloke who’s signed for a lot of money in a game where he can actually play. He seems very level-headed and mature for a 20-year-old kid.”

As Suaalii prepares to make his mark in rugby union, the rugby fraternity eagerly awaits the unfolding of what could potentially be the rise of a new cross-code superstar, hoping that he will play a pivotal role in revitalising Australian rugby.

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