Dual international Lote Tuqiri believes Joseph Suaalii has the potential to become the best ever player to make the switch to rugby union from rugby league.
Suaalii has signed a three-year deal with Rugby Australia and the Waratahs beginning in 2024 but he will only be available to play rugby union after the completion of the upcoming NRL season which will be in October next year.
The deal will see Sydney Roosters star switch to the 15-man code until at least the 2027 Rugby World Cup which is set to be hosted in Australia.
High praise for Suaalii
Tuqiri, who made 67 Test appearances for the Wallabies between 2003 and 2009, is excited by the prospect of Suaalii coming over to the 15-a-side game and feels the 20-year-old can outshine all code hoppers who have made the switch to union before him, including Israel Folau, who has been arguably the best cross-code star.
“He could get to Israel Folau status,” Tuqiri told the Sydney Morning Herald. “He probably could be better. He could be better than all of us rugby league converts. Joseph Suaalii could be a force to be reckoned with.”
It’s for that reason that Tuqiri sees no problem with Suaalii being named in Australia’s squad for next year’s end-of-year tour to Europe without having played a Super Rugby match.
Earlier this week, Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh said he is hopeful that Suaalii would go with the Wallabies on their end-of-year tour. However, Tuqiri feels that such a scenario could cause some uneasiness in the Wallabies squad despite describing their showing at the recent Rugby World Cup in France as “terrible”.
Tuqiri came over to rugby union after the 2002 NRL season but played a full year at Super Rugby level for the Waratahs before making his Wallabies debut in 2003.
“There would be a chance [of player unrest],” he said. “I actually feel a bit sorry for the kid. He’s just doing the best for himself. There always will be a bit of conjecture. On the whole, if you play in a team environment, you want success and the best players. He’s not going back to rugby because he’s a dud. I think the players will get around it.
“I think there was a little bit [of blowback] when I was coming through … and I get that because guys have been playing rugby their whole life. You’ve just got to be good enough.
“At the end of the day, we weren’t good enough [at the World Cup]. We picked blokes to go to the World Cup who we thought were good enough but weren’t. That quality was terrible.
“You’d be silly not to take him. They’ve made a big investment. He’s been playing at a high level with the Roosters. I think you try and fast-track him in. Whether he plays or not is another question. What we saw in the World Cup is not having enough experience. I think just being away with blokes will stand him in good stead going into 2025.”
When Tuqiri switched codes in 2002, Australian rugby was in a healthy state as they had won the Rugby World Cup in 1999 and the country was preparing to host the global showpiece in 2003.
It’s a very difficult situation currently as the Wallabies have just registered their worst ever World Cup performance as they failed to reach the global showpiece’s knockout rounds for the first time in the tournament’s history.
Plenty to think about
Tuqiri feels the current state of the the 15-man game in Australia might be something which is weighing heavily on Suaalii’s mind.
“If I’m him, I would have some doubts if I made the right decision,” said the 44-year-old. “He’ll have another 12 months to see where the game goes. It can only go up in Australia.
“He’s a young bloke who’s signed for a lot of money in a game where he can actually play. He seems very level-headed and mature for a 20-year-old kid.”