Wallabies star Mark Nawaqanitawase will switch codes to rugby league in 2025, the winger set to join Sydney Roosters on a two-year deal to play in the NRL.
Nawaqanitawase informed Waratahs teammates at training on Wednesday night, dealing another hammer blow to the under-siege code in the process. Nawaqanitawase will join the Chooks after the completion of his 2024 rugby commitments in what will effectively be a straight swap with Joseph Suaali'i.
Rugby Australia [RA] and the Waratahs secured the signing of Suaali'i on a three-and-a-half year deal in March this year, with former chairman Hamish McLennan declaring it a masterstroke for the code.
But it also infuriated NRL administrators who in turn set their collective sights on rugby's brightest talent and even flagged the possibility of salary cap dispensation to coax the pick of the players in the 15-man code across to rugby league.
That dispensation has not yet been formalized by the Australian Rugby League Commission, but it didn't stop the Roosters swooping on Nawaqanitawase, who had only inked a one-year extension with the Waratahs and RA earlier this year.
The powerhouse winger was one of the few stars of a disastrous 2023 Wallabies campaign under Eddie Jones, who departed Australian rugby last month. The Wallabies won just two of nine Tests under Jones and bowed out at the pool stage of the Rugby World Cup for the first time in their history, while chairman McLennan was later dumped in a board coup.
At 22, Nawaqanitawase has plenty of time to return to rugby in the future, and the winger's manager Andrew Fairbain told the Sydney Morning Herald he hoped the door would remain open.
"This has been an intense process for Mark and his family, which has taken some time to navigate," Fairbairn said.
"At 23, Mark feels now is the best time to stay in Australia, but have a new experience in the Roosters program for 2025 and 2026. Trent Robinson has a long line of success with working with rugby union talent - which ultimately was the catalyst in Mark's decision.
"Mark has been highly developed as a player and person by the NSW Waratahs and Rugby Australia since 2018. He has come through a pathway from St Pats College, Eastwood, Australian 20s and Australian sevens. He is where he is today with all the hard work and support of his various teammates and coaches, at amateur and professional level.
"A lot of good people, including the fans, have been involved in Mark's journey, which has made this decision an emotional one. We hope the door will be open for Mark to return to the Wallabies fold in the future."
Releasing a statement on Thursday morning, RA thanked Nawaqanitawase for his efforts while CEO Phil Waugh spoke of his disappointment such a young talent would be leaving the code.
"We are disappointed - Mark has been a strong player over the last 12 months. However, the outside backs are a position of strength for us, with great depth coming through," Waugh said.
"We are confident we are well-stocked with talented wingers for the future."
RA had repeatedly flagged the lure of its "golden decade" of events in the hope it would not only keep players in the game, but also whet the appetite of interested rugby league stars.
As a result of his switch in 2024, Nawaqanitawase will miss out on the chance to face the British & Irish Lions in 2025, but as flagged by Fairbairn, may still have the chance to return in time for the 2027 World Cup on Australian soil.
What it does for Nawaqanitawase's hopes of wearing Wallaby gold in 2024 remains to be seen, but with a new coach set to begin in the new year, and just 18 months until the Lions arrive Down Under, it may be that the winger is overlooked for another outside back who is contracted to rugby for 2025 and beyond.
The Wallabies first assignment in 2024 is a two-Test series against Wales in Australia in July.
Jordan Petaia, Suliasi Vunivalu, Max Jorgensen, who was taken to the World Cup but did not play a game after he was injured at training, his Waratahs teammate Dylan Pietsch, and the likes of Corey Toole, Jock Campbell and Tom Wright could all come into consideration on the wing in 2024 as a result of Nawaqanitawase's decision.
It is believe Marika Koroibete will make himself available for 2024, despite comments from Wallabies teammate Pone Fa'aumasili that the winger had played his last Test when Australia defeated Portugal at the World Cup.