Wallabies must use Giteau Law to get a look at Will Skelton

The time has come for the Wallabies to activate the updated Giteau Law and throw Will Skelton back into the Test arena, if for nothing more than to gauge how his outstanding European form stacks up at international level and whether it is enough to constitute repatriating him completely before the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Skelton was at his damaging best as his French club La Rochelle booked its place in the European Rugby Champions Cup final with a 32-23 victory over Leinster last weekend, with the former Waratahs lock scoring a try as part of 11 runs that yielded 42 metres.

It will be Skelton's second European Cup final after he lifted the trophy with Saracens in 2018, and he has also been nominated for this year's European Player of the Year Award.

Skelton's season has not been without incident - there was a four-week for a dangerous tackle - but if comments from La Rochelle coach Ronan O'Gara are anything to go by, his influence on the club since his move from Saracens has been immeasurable.

"There's a saying in New Zealand: You're only as good as the cattle you have," O'Gara said in a wide-ranging interview with The Times.

"Like, we're near the top of the league but you have to put your hand up and say: is it my coaching or is it Will Skelton coming on loan from Saracens? He's an excellent rugby player and he has come from a winners' environment, but he has inspired people because of his personality too."

But having not played a Test since 2016, the Wallabies have no indication as to how exactly his outstanding European form might translate to the international level.

What is confusing, however, is that Wallabies coach Dave Rennie and Rugby Australia management updated the Giteau Law amid the coronavirus pandemic last year, adding a clause that allows the national side to select two overseas-based players who do not meet the 60 Test caps or seven years' service to Australian rugby criteria.

On paper, it looks like the perfect avenue to bring Skelton back for his first Test in five years.

But, as recently as March, Rennie indicated he was leaning against selecting any overseas players.

"Currently that law says we can bring a couple in, as I've mentioned before we're reluctant to change it and bring wholesale numbers in...it won't be great for our competition and our depth here and ideally we want to be able to compare apples with apples and a guy playing in France is hard to measure how well they're going and how well they're conditioned and so on, and so on. Yeah, so I can't see any change."

And therein lies the problem, if Skelton is left on the other side of the world until the World Cup, how exactly are Rennie, director of rugby Scott Johnson and the rest of the Wallabies management to judge whether the lock deserves the kind of money that would potentially tempt him to return home permanently?

Skelton's contract is due to expire at the end of the 2022 European season, although more of the form he has displayed since his move from Saracens, which was largely forced because of the English club's systemic salary cap cheating and the subsequent fines, will likely make him a top retention target for the Top 14 outfit.

Even then, if he was to re-sign with La Rochelle for one further season, he could still become eligible for the Wallabies' World Cup tilt if he was to sign with an Australian franchise for 2024, though he would then be 31 years of age and, having been overseas for five years, such a move might not carry great appeal. The British & Irish Lions series in 2025 could be the swinging point in that decision though, too.

But such forward thinking is irrelevant unless the Wallabies are prepared to take a chance and exercise the ability to throw Skelton back into Test rugby this year.

And the whole situation is moot unless Skelton is genuinely interested in pulling on the gold jersey once again, which certainly appeared to be the case amid failed negotiations with RA in 2020.

With La Rochelle currently second in the Top 14 and the final of the competition scheduled for Saturday Jun. 26, it is highly unlikely that Skelton could be available for the three-Test series with France, as there are quarantine protocols to consider.

A more achievable outcome would be to set up Skelton for the Rugby Championship, or at least part thereof; to offer him the opportunity for a visit home - Skelton and his wife have a baby son - and the chance to again don the gold jersey in what would be a trial run, of sorts.

The situation is a win-win for both parties. Rennie and the Wallabies would at last get a look at Skelton in the flesh and whether his superb European form transfers to the international stage, while the lock himself gets the opportunity to perform at Test level and prove he is truly worth the top end of the RA salaries.

Such a scenario would leave both Skelton and the Wallabies in little doubt as to where each other stands two years out from the World Cup.

Asked about such a plan, a Wallabies spokesperson told ESPN it would depend on the Rugby Championship schedule, which is still to be locked away.

What is clear is that Australia needs depth across the lock positions. Sitaleki Timani's return home, and subsequent selection in Rennie's 40-man training squad last month, has added experience to an otherwise reasonably raw range of options that also includes Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Darcy Swain, Trevor Hosea and, later this year, Izack Rodda.

Given what he first achieved with Saracens and now appears to be on a similar path to with La Rochelle, it will be a travesty if Skelton's international career is curtailed at just 18 Tests.

Back in 2014, in front of a packed Sydney Football Stadium, Skelton made his debut, against France, under Ewen McKenzie. The highlight of a near faultless afternoon was a little stutter step and then a perfect short pass that put Israel Folau on a 40-metre run to the tryline.

McKenzie is barely heard of nowadays and Folau is little more than an afterthought. The time has come to ensure that Skelton doesn't drift into similar Wallabies obscurity.