With the NRL eyeing a May 28 return – potentially with a shortened 13-week competition – at least one club is preparing an approach to the Folau camp in the coming days to gauge his appetite in signing before the June 30 deadline.
Folau, who turned 31 last week, is one of a host of players around the world who have also been earmarked as part of a raid that would generate unprecedented interest in rugby league.
Folau, Williams, Savea and Cooper are the obvious quartet – but other league and union targets mentioned to this column include Kurtley Beale, Ben Te’o, Will Chambers, Karmichael Hunt, Jordan Rapana, James Maloney, Jackson Hastings and Blake Austin.
While most would be welcomed into the NRL with open arms, any attempt to sign Folau would be met by resistance from head office, which remains intent on excluding Folau from its ‘‘inclusive sport’’.
ARLC chairman Peter V’landys was careful when he was last year asked about Folau’s future in the sport. It was clear he didn’t agree with Folau’s actions.
‘‘The comments of Israel are not inclusive,’’ V’landys said. ‘‘Israel has to understand he is a role model … he has a duty. When I was at school and kids used to get bashed up because they were different, I used to go and defend them. I have no tolerance for people who put other people’s lives into violence or whatever.’’
What V’landys didn’t say was that he wouldn’t be registered. That was for legal reasons. You can be assured the governing body has done its homework and a failure to register Folau’s contract, should a club try, could force them into a legal battle they now cannot afford given the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic.
NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg appeared to have understood that, because at least he was willing to sit down with Folau to discuss a potential future in the NRL before former ARLC chairman Peter Beattie ran to the media with a string of text messages to shut it down.
It also appears there is increasing support within clubs for Folau to return, especially considering most still have a spot to fill on their roster.
In a Herald poll of NRL club chairs and CEOs before round one, 40 per cent of those who took part said they would welcome Folau back to under strict conditions. That shocked many at NRL headquarters, with one senior official telling the Herald it would have likely been 90 per cent against just six months earlier.
This potential global recruitment raid raises questions. Will their current clubs let them go? Could you get them on a loan deal? Are their current contracts null and void if they aren’t getting paid what they signed for? When will the NRL begin to register contracts again after recently putting a freeze on deals?
Take Cooper, for instance. The former Wallabies poster boy is now living in Brisbane – training with many of the Broncos players as you can see from his social media activity – having returned home from Japan.
Chances are the COVID-19 restrictions may have seen Cooper play his last game for the Liners – at least for this year – and those close to the 32-year-old insist he still harbours a desire to play in the NRL.
Cooper, whose videos of unorthodox gridiron passes have gone viral, admitted as much as recently as last December in a podcast with former NRL player, Isaac John. ‘‘I want to play with Sonny before we both retire. But I wouldn’t mind playing NRL either, just for one season or even just come and do some training with the lads to see what it is like,’’ Cooper said on The Ice Project podcast. ‘‘If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I am happy with what I have been able to achieve, but if the opportunity arose I would love to do it.
‘‘A lot of people say I would come and kill it, and I know I can play it … I look at the game and every time I watch it, I know how much I would love to play and test myself at a professional level … it’s just figuring out whether it is possible.’’
Cooper could fill the void at fullback for the Broncos after they lost Jack Bird for the season with an ACL injury. Or perhaps he could be used at five-eighth if Anthony Milford returned to the No.1 jersey. Former Broncos winger Jharal Yow Yeh even went to the effort of altering an image on social media with Cooper in a Broncos jersey.
Then there’s Savea, the off-contract All Black who stunned many when he too used John’s podcast to declare his desire to play in the NRL. ‘‘Strategically I would want to go to a team that was dominating, like the Storm or Roosters,’’ Savea said on John’s podcast. ‘‘One hundred per cent I want to play rugby league, I think they do a lot more in terms of off the field stuff … and also, just a new challenge. I want to test myself.
‘‘Learning a whole new game and seeing if I can dominate, or play the way I play in union, that excites me. Seeing guys like Sonny [Bill Williams] do it kind of plays on my mind a bit.’’
A lot has to happen for the stars to align, but perhaps there’s no better way for Savea to gauge if the 13-man code is his future than a short-term stint in the NRL with huge doubts over the 15-a-side code’s Super Rugby and international fixtures this year.
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Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald