THE days of the long Wallabies' player contracts are over.
After several seasons where leading performers were able to secure lucrative three-year contracts, the Herald has been told the Australian Rugby Union will now be offering either one or two-year deals to the code's leading players.
The ARU has opted for shorter contracts to cut down its exposure to players who are on long-term deals, but have become ''underperforming assets'' by either being out of form, injured or have no possibility of becoming a Wallaby. It will also put the pressure on numerous fringe players to continue performing.
The ARU had been concerned that for some years there were numerous players nearing the end of their careers at provincial level who had substantial ARU top-ups, and were commanding salaries of around $400,000 to 450,000 even though there was no likelihood of them again playing Test rugby.
Wallabies and Reds winger Digby Ioane could easily be the last player to secure a long national contract, after the ARU and Queensland late last year signed him to a three-year deal, so that he did not leave for Japan, where he had been offered a seven-figure sum.
Putting even more pressure on provincial players to perform is that the ARU recently announced it was dramatically cutting back the number of ''top-up'' contracts it would offer per year. Four years ago, the number of players on top-ups was 54. This year it will be between 30 and 35, with 32 the anticipated final number.
When ARU chief executive John O'Neill revealed the cutbacks this month, he said that having 54 players on national contracts ''was, for a lot of reasons, too many, unsustainable, highly impractical and too costly''.
This restriction and shorter contracts are bound to see more Australian provincial players who are in their final seasons of Super Rugby having to look overseas, where they are likely to get more lucrative offers than what can provided by their province. Many players, including several at the Waratahs, are well into negotiations or are near to finalising deals with northern hemisphere clubs because they realise they have little chance of securing an ARU contract.
Adding to the uncertainty is that the players must finalise their provincial contracts before going into negotiations over their Wallabies deals. The Australian provinces are also awaiting final confirmation of what their salary cap will be next season, with the most likely scenario being $4.8 million, but at least the last $800,000 of that must come from the province. This was aimed at making the Australian provinces more accountable, and working within their own budget constraints.
The Waratahs also may wait another week before picking Rocky Elsom, with the selectors likely to stick with the line-up that defeated the Force for Saturday night's match against the Rebels in Sydney.
Elsom, who has not played this season, was expected to be available this week, but only had minimal involvement in yesterday's training session. He is expected to train this morning. NSW selectors will then decide whether he will be available for the match against the Rebels.
Waratahs coach Michael Foley last night appeared to be eager to stick with the status quo. When asked if his captain would return via the bench on Saturday night, Foley said: ''That's a possibility. But the guys who have been involved have played very well. Unless one of those guys was carrying a niggle, or needed a rest, I would think they would be the ones we would go with.''