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Ben Mowen may say au revoir to Australian rugby early

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Georgina Robinson, Chris Dutton

Ben Mowen could leave Australia as early as August.

Ben Mowen could leave Australia as early as August. Photo: Getty Images

Ben Mowen could leave Australia as early as August after the Wallabies captain broke a deadlock with the Australian Rugby Union that has lasted months.

Mowen, hailed on Wednesday as the best captain with whom Wallabies legend Stephen Larkham had ever coached or played, has been linked to France's Montpellier and is said to have agreed to a three-year deal with the Top 14 club.

But the ARU's notoriously hard line on granting players early releases had triggered a stand-off between it and the Brumbies captain and his management.

Fairfax Media understands the deadlock was broken last week.

Mowen, who last year led the Wallabies to four wins in a row for the first time in five years, has been cleared to leave Australia, at the latest after the third Bledisloe Cup Test on October 18, but potentially as early as at the end of the Super Rugby season in August.

His departure date hinges on whether Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie will require him for Test duty this year.

''I haven't firmed in my head which way we'll go,'' McKenzie said at the launch of the 2014 Super Rugby season in Sydney.

''Ben knows his future is elsewhere. My job is to understand his situation. We have to win Test matches but by the same token we've got a finite situation [of available players for selection].

''I need to be looking at all the alternatives. Nothing has really changed for me at the moment, we'll work out [whether Mowen is needed] closer to the time.''

The deal, which the ARU is reluctant to make public because it fears such an agreement could set a precedent, recognises that Mowen's seven years of service to Australian rugby warrant an October release.

A move offshore any earlier than that would depend on the state of Australia's back-row stocks.

Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham and Waratahs No.8 Wycliff Palu are widely tipped to be Mowen's chief challengers for selection. Both players were injured last year.

Larkham, a decorated former Test five-eighth who played in teams captained by John Eales, George Gregan and Stirling Mortlock, said Mowen would leave a void that would be difficult to fill.

''There's two issues, I guess, the issue of him in the back row and who do we get who will have his experience and knowledge in the back row, and that will be a work in progress,'' Larkham said.

''The other thing is just his leadership. I haven't been involved with a better leader than Benny in my playing or coaching days - and I've been with a few good leaders.

''He's tremendous in terms of his presence and message to the team, he is always spot on. So that's going to be a bit of a void.''

The ARU has treated players on a case-by-case basis in the past but has also found the standard December 31 release useful to cling to in turbulent times.

Former Test stalwarts Berrick Barnes and Drew Mitchell were released at the end of Super Rugby last year.

But former NSW powerhouse Sitaleki Timani, who will likely welcome Mowen as a teammate in France later this year, was forced to play on throughout the Rugby Championship and the Wallabies northern spring tour when Australia's stocks of second-rowers plummeted.

Mowen, who made his Test debut last year before being handed the captaincy in the middle of a difficult first season for McKenzie, announced his decision to quit Test rugby in January.

It is understood, however, that contract negotiations had started as far back as June.

There was speculation the 29-year-old had threatened to pull the pin on the Brumbies this season if the ARU did not relax its policy on early releases.

Mowen denied these reports.

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