The selection of six overseas Australian players on the Wallabies’ Spring Tour roster suggests the Giteau Act is about to become a dead letter. It’s the highest representation of overseas players since the rule was introduced in 2015, which was essentially aimed at qualifying center-back Matt Giteau for the World Cup that year.
In fact, the overseas contingent was equal to the number of players put on the 37-man roster by the Melbourne Rebels, NSW Waratahs, and Queensland Reds, and twice as many as the Western Force. Only the Brumbies (10) had more players.
Of the six foreign-based players in the roster, only five-eighth Quade Cooper (75 caps) qualified under the original Giteau law, which allowed players with 60 test caps to qualify for the Wallabies.
Giteau’s law was then changed to allow the selection of two players who did not reach the 60-cap threshold. But five players – Rory Arnold (22 caps), Samu Kerevi (36), Tolu Latu (15), Sean McMahon (26) and Will Skelton (18) – received exceptions for the upcoming spring tour as part of the change.
Some reluctance has been shown with the omission of France-based utility back Kurtley Beale, possibly due to a plan to develop Jordan Petaia as a full-back on tour.
Rugby Australia will clarify its position after the spring tour and has indicated that some cap will remain in place, but it is likely that the number of players required will set the limit, particularly for the 2023 World Cup in France.
With the wallabies’ decent results since the 2015 World Cup, RA had no choice but to go in that direction, something the national governing body had previously strongly opposed.
Rory Arnold on duty for Toulouse. Photo: Adrian Dennis / AFP / Getty Images
After an unconvincing 2-1 win over the second-class France team in winter, the Wallabies were defeated 3-0 by the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup. Then, when Cooper, Kerevi and McMahon were recalled from Japan, the Wallabies won four tests in a row for the first time since 2017, upsetting the Springboks World Champion twice and beating Argentina twice in the rugby championship.
The influence of Cooper and Kerevi in particular was profound, underscoring the need for the Wallabies to select Australia’s best players, no matter where they played rugby in the club or in the province.
The Wallabies’ success in the rugby championship made it more palatable to attract France-based Arnold, Skelton and Latu to the UK leg of the spring tour. World-class second rowers Arnold and Skelton have the potential to transform the team’s forward play in the same way that Cooper and Kerevi improved their return leg, while Latu would add much-needed depth to the hooking position.
The availability of all the required overseas players would certainly make the Wallabies a competitive force in world rugby again, but RA must carefully manage the process. In the past, the country’s super rugby franchises opposed the relaxation of the Giteau Act, fearing it would exacerbate the exodus of players to rich overseas clubs in Europe and Japan.
It could be argued that the Socceroos have no restrictions on the selection of overseas players and that there is still enough local talent in Australia to support the local A-League men. But comparing Australian rugby and soccer is like comparing oval balls with round balls. With the exception of Wellington Phoenix, the A-League Men is an all-Australian competition, but Australia’s Super Rugby teams compete against five New Zealand teams that are among the best regional teams in the world.
Australia’s super rugby teams have struggled to beat the Kiwis for the past seven years and a continuation of the player drain overseas would further widen the gap between the Tasmanian countries and undermine support for the provincial game here. So it’s understandable that RA and the club franchises would like to keep some remnants of Giteau law in an attempt to discourage players from leaving.
But the bottom line in Australian rugby is that the wallabies are the main money makers. If the men in gold are unsuccessful, the entire game suffers, including the Super Rugby franchises which draw 30 to 40% of their income from annual RA grants.
RA needs to strike the right balance to make the Wallabies strong again and keep enough talent in Australia to ensure that the Super Rugby teams can compete with the New Zealanders. It is much easier said than done.
Since its inception, the Giteau Law has been tweaked a few times and this practice is likely to continue in the run-up to the World Cup. It needs to be flexible enough to ensure that the required overseas based players are eligible to vote while at the same time RA and the Super Rugby franchises have to work harder to keep marquee players in the country.
The rule is unlikely to be repealed, but it is almost certain that in practice it will be overridden in all respects.