Story reproduced with the kind permission of The Australian (author Christy Doran)
The future of Australian Rugby has never been murkier, but one of the country’s most promising young players, Tate McDermott, says he’s not going anywhere.
Staring down the barrel of a $120 million black hole this year and with no broadcast deal finalised yet to secure the game’s future beyond 2020, players across the country are considering pushing the exit parachute, with agents fielding calls from cashed up overseas clubs.
Japan’s Top League shapes as one prime hunting ground players are looking at with dollar signs flashing in their eyes, particularly given stars Quade Cooper and Will Genia, who have joined former Reds coach Nick Stiles at Kintetsu, are cooling their heels in Brisbane with their campaigns over and are still banking their healthy pay cheques.
Raelene Castle may have fallen on her sword, but the uncertain future Super Rugby finds itself in, exacerbated by COVID-19, has left large chunks of the playing group questioning whether to stay in Australia or head overseas.
In a rare piece of positive news, Wallaby-in-waiting McDermott says the decision to stay or go is a matter of patriotism. “There could be pay cuts around the corner, but you either love your country or you don’t; you either love your state or you don’t,” the talented 21-year-old told The Australian.
“There’s no way I’m walking away from Australian rugby. I’m sick of this country struggling in a rugby sense and I want to see it back to the glory days.
“It’s pretty cliched — everyone’s been saying that — but from a lifelong rugby fan, it’s obviously pretty tragic the state the game’s in and we’ve each got our individual hand in trying to get it out of that mess.”
Even before the COVID-19 crisis forced the suspension of Super Rugby on March 16, player agents had told The Australian RA faced an exodus of its premier talent.
RA’s $9.4m (unaudited) deficit in 2019 and the uncertainty facing the code, particularly with no rugby expected to be played for months, has only accentuated those anxieties. But McDermott, who is widely considered by many as the best young halfback in Australia, says the desire to pull on the Wallabies jersey outweighs the temptation to chase foreign cash.
“I can see why players would be considering that (a move overseas),” he said. “Obviously there’s a lot more security in signing overseas, particularly the state that the game’s in at the moment in Australia, but it’s always been a lifelong dream to throw on that gold jersey and that’s something that I’m starting to build towards.
“But even more than that was they showed faith in me. I had only played 15 or so games at the time and they offered me a long-term deal with Rugby Australia.
“They showed a lot of faith in me, so it’s time to repay that faith.”
Just how many of his teammates share those patriotic values remains to be seen, but the former Junior Wallabies halfback said there was a feeling within the Reds that they could create something special if they stuck together. Boom back-row sensations Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson are two players who have been sounded out by overseas clubs. Both men, like McDermott, are signed with the Reds until 2023, but the COVID-19 pandemic could blow up Super Rugby by season’s end should international travel continue to be banned.
“The consensus is we were just starting to create something, so we’re all really keen to stay,” McDermott said. “There’s going to be a sacrifice here and there and it’s up to the individual players to make their own decision, but at the moment there’s not so much of a divide, there’s just so much uncertainty which is clouding a lot of peoples’ judgment.
“But from a younger point of view, we have a clear vision of staying in Australian rugby and that’s led from our captain Liam Wright. We’re all such good mates and it would be a tragedy if we were to split up and go in different directions.”
That faith could be rewarded with a Wallabies jersey later this year, with incoming coach Dave Rennie having to find another halfback after Test centurion Will Genia retired following Australia’s quarter-final exit at the World Cup in Japan last year.
McDermott, who after seven rounds in Super Rugby leads the competition for try assists (10), is expected to compete with Nic White for the No 9 jersey in the post-Michael Cheika era.
He has been included in Rennie’s “players of national interest” squad, with one Wallabies source telling The Australian that McDermott has “the X-factor”.