SYDNEY (Reuters) - New South Wales Waratahs coach Rob Penney has hit out at reports that Rugby Australia were signing a schoolboy to a multi-million dollar contract, saying they risked undermining morale in a game where players have taken big pay cuts this year.
Local media reported earlier this week that 16-year-old back Joseph Suaalii had spurned a deal with rugby league’s South Sydney Rabbitohs to sign a A$3 million ($2.15 million) contract to play the 15-man game.
Rugby Australia, which was plunged into financial crisis by the COVID-19 shutdown, quickly rubbished the figures cited in the reports even if they still hope Suaalii will choose to play rugby union for the Waratahs and ultimately the Wallabies.
Penney said that he had felt it necessary to call a meeting to discuss the reports with his players, who took pay cuts of up to 30% to help the game get back up and running after the coronavirus shutdown.
“The reality is all of our staff are on only percentages of their contractual earnings,” Penney told reporters on Thursday. “People across the game have made sacrifices and the media reports could easily have undermined the environment and that was something that I was really conscious of.
“We really care for our people and that sort of stuff can cause a level of anxiety that is really unfortunate and unwarranted.”
If Suaalii did sign, Penney said he would play him in Super Rugby Australia once he became eligible on his 17th birthday next month, but only if his performances in training warranted it.
“It’s a professional environment, you’ve got an eye on development, but it’s about getting results,” he added.
“If he is to join us and he was deemed to be the best option, certainly he’d be selected.”
($1 = 1.3986 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Christopher Cushing