The Brumbies hope a flexible contract will keep Christian Lealiifano in Canberra. Photo: Gallo ImagesACT Brumbies boss Michael Jones says Australia’s new contracting system is a “double-edge weapon” as the club launches a bid to use a flexible contract to hang on to star playmaker Christian Lealiifano.
The Brumbies have been forced to investigate new ways to keep their stars in Canberra as rich overseas clubs try to lure players abroad with pay packets twice the size of those on offer in Australia.
Lealiifano looms as a linchpin for the Brumbies, after five-eighth Matt Toomua signed a deal to join the Leicester Tigers at the end of the 2016 Super Rugby campaign.
He’s been chased by French and Japanese teams with big money offers.
Jones said simply increasing the salary cap wasn’t the answer and Aussie provinces needed to be more “innovative” with their contracts instead.
He also said the ARU’s revamped Wallabies eligibility rules – which allow players with more than 60 Test caps and seven years of service to play abroad and still be available for Australian selection – could have the side effect of forcing players overseas.
Lealiifano was one of the unluckiest players in Australia’s World Cup selection, squeezed out of the 31-man squad when coach Michael Cheika opted to bring back veteran Matt Giteau.
The ARU also introduced flexible contract arrangements to give players an option to maximise their earning potential in the Australian off-season without sacrificing the chance to play for the Wallabies.
NSW Waratahs Israel Folau and Bernard Foley have already taken the chance to sign deals in Japan, while continuing their Wallabies careers.
Jones hoped a similar set-up would keep Lealiifano in Canberra.
“A lot of these things are double-edge weapons. You create a mechanism to allow the Matt Giteaus etcetera to come back in, but there are younger players who look at it and think, ‘That’s taking a spot that I’ve been aspiring to’,” Jones told the ABC on Saturday.
“Perhaps [former Brumbies halfback] Nic White fell into that category. You’ve got to be careful when you change rules that have been entrenched for quite a while to look at it all.
“The money being thrown around in Europe these days is significant and it’s hard for us to match that, given all the Super Rugby clubs struggle financially.
“Forever increasing the salary cap is not the answer. We’ve got to try to find a happy balance there about being innovative with mechanisms because guys love being here – it’s just the enticement over there is quite strong.”
That’s why the Brumbies approached the ARU about a flexible deal to allow Lealiifano to play Super Rugby, be eligible for the Wallabies and supplement his earnings with an off-season stint overseas.
Each Australian Super Rugby club is only allowed one flexible contract and Scott Fardy currently fills the Brumbies’ slot, but the flanker decided to have a rest after the World Cup rather than extend a long playing year.
The Australian rugby hierarchy agreed to Jones’ request for dispensation to offer Lealiifano a similar deal.
The Brumbies are set to negotiate with Lealiifano, but the ARU is yet to table a contract.
“The idea behind it is to allow players who have typically had more than 60 Super Rugby games and been at the club for a number of years … to try to increase their earning capacity given the restrictions we have of a roster of 30 players fitting into a $5 million salary cap,” Jones said.
“That’s the idea of it. The intention is that they would be able to play internationally in the off-season, but not year-on-year. Maybe three seasons out of four or something like that.”
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