Dave Rennie: Michael Hooper's Japanese sabbatical a blueprint for player retention

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has forecast more sabbaticals for Australia's elite players, suggesting that skipper Michael Hooper's Japanese stint could become the blueprint for player retention moving forward -- particularly if Japanese clubs are to join Super Rugby.

After a successful Super Rugby AU decider on the weekend, the good news stories kept coming for Rugby Australia (RA) on Thursday with Cadbury unveiled as the game's principal partner, the confectionary company set to replace Qantas on the front of the Wallabies jersey in the three-Test series with France in July.

Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, which begins on Friday, will help to solidify Rennie's thinking for France's visit, with Wallabies hopefuls set for an ever greater test in the face of New Zealand opposition.

Second-rowers Matt Philip and Izack Rodda, who are both based in France, may be included in a Wallabies squad that could total 38 players, but Rennie indicated that Hooper would definitely be involved with the Top League set to conclude over the next two weeks.

With the Giteau Law remaining an ongoing topic of discussion, particularly in regards to Will Skelton, Rennie said an avenue of exploration for bringing overseas players back into the national fold could lie in Hooper's stint with Toyota Verblitz.

"So a sabbatical type of thing, like Hoops is doing, we're talking about with a handful of other players who can potentially cash in for half a year and then come back, that's a great option for us," Rennie said in Sydney on Thursday.

"I think guys going over to Europe and going open slather -- so we forget about whatever the Giteau Law is at the moment, and you pick from wherever you like -- it will end up being like Africa and Argentina and you'll have no control over your players.

"If you look at South Africa last year, they had so many players up in Europe; that's the reason they didn't want to come here, they were scared of losing their No. 1 ranking. And I think it opens the floodgates.

"[But] picking from here hopefully keeps guys here playing, but certainly sabbatical options for our elite players [are an option]."

Asked directly about Skelton, who is again in a rich vein of form with French club La Rochelle, Rennie said the towering lock still harboured a desire to play for the Wallabies but he would have to forgo a chunk of cash at some point to help make it happen.

"We're constantly talking to guys overseas to try and lure them back to play Super Rugby; that's the ideal scenario, as it strengthens our comp here and allows us to pick them from here," Rennie said. "The challenge for guys like Will is finance; the sort of money we're talking about in France is just phenomenal and you've got or be prepared to give that up to chase a Wallaby jersey again.

"And I understand that some guys would prefer to stay in France or Japan because they're going to set themselves up for life, and it's just the world we live in.

"So we're trying to create a culture, an environment that people want to be part of and are prepared to come back and have a crack knowing that they can still go overseas beyond that.

"So we've certainly spoken to Will; I spoke to him when I was in the UK and spoke to him when he got to La Rochelle around his thinking, and he's certainly got an interest to play for the Wallabies again. Watch this space. It's a very similar story with Rory Arnold and others who are overseas."

Looking even further ahead, Rennie said having Japanese clubs join a Super Rugby competition that could once again extend into Asia -- the Sunwolves were a part of the tournament between 2016 and 2020 -- could facilitate a situation in which Wallabies players were contracted by Top League clubs but were still eligible for Test rugby.

"To be honest, what would be a great scenario long term is that the Japanese clubs come into Super Rugby, so now we could actually pick from that competition because we're comparing apples with apples.

"It would be brilliant."

Such a scenario might be a way off, but the discussion around what Super Rugby will look like in 2022 is happening right now.

Last weekend's Super Rugby AU final, which drew almost 42,000 fans to Suncorp Stadium and peaked at 464,00 viewers on free-to-air television channel Nine, has given RA further food for thought after chief executive Andy Marinos had already indicated the competition had given his board "something to ponder".

Rennie thought his own wishes would count for "probably zero" with regards to the tournament structure for next year, but he said he was a fan of the domestic format that has operated over the past two years.

"Look I think it's important the connection [trans-Tasman play], but both sides of the Tasman have got to acknowledge that it's in the benefit of both countries to play trans-Tasman games," Rennie said.

"I quite like the situation where we're playing amongst ourselves for a while and then we cross the Tasman for a period of weeks; the travel's less, the times are consistent from a viewing point-of-view for people... and then you get, almost, [Wallabies] trials every week from our perspective.

"So I quite like how it's been, but in the end we've got to do what's best for the game and if it ends up going back to a Super 12 or Super 10, or something along those lines in a round-robin situation, then it's whatever's best for the game in the end."

With the Reds and Brumbies both having to travel to New Zealand for their opening round Trans-Tasman fixtures, against the Highlanders and Crusaders respectively, and the Rebels, Force and Waratahs all given next to no chance of a first-up win, at least by the bookmakers, there are genuine fears of a Kiwi whitewash in Round 1.

But Rennie believes there will be an adjustment for all 10 sides this weekend.

"I think what will be interesting is how teams match up," he said.

"I look at the Rebels who are without a number of guys -- three red cards from their previous encounter and three big men out of their pack against the biggest pack in New Zealand -- so they're going to be better the following week.

"And I look at it again from the Rebels [point-of-view]; [they] defend a bit differently than all the Kiwi sides do, so it'll be interesting if they can apply a bit of that pressure to the Blues through that defence and profit off it.

"I think the fact that the teams are a little bit different... is a good thing; I don't think the Crusaders would have come up against a side that mauls as well as the Brumbies, and so on. So it's exciting.

"But I agree, the Reds and the Brumbies may be missing a few from what we saw last week, some of them forced on them through injury, but they'll still have great sides out there and it's a great chance for some young kids to get a crack."