Cheika backs culture shift to keep Barnes from Japan
In demand … Japanese rugby target Berrick Barnes at Waratahs training on Thursday. Photo: Anthony Johnson
AS EXPECTATION mounts that Wallabies and Waratahs back Berrick Barnes is poised to leave Australia for Japan, his new coach at NSW, Michael Cheika, is refusing to say ''sayonara'' to his star playmaker just yet.
''No one says 'sayonara' until they have left, have they?'' Cheika said on Thursday. ''My job is to make sure that this place is such a good place to be at that guys don't want to leave.''
Cheika was speaking after Fairfax Media revealed Barnes, 26, is on the cusp of signing a deal with Japanese club Panasonic Wild Knights.
Panasonic need a new No.10 with their New Zealand playmaker, one-time All Black Mike Delany, opting to play in France.
However, with Barnes, a veteran of 50 Tests and 82 Super games, contracted with the Australian Rugby Union until the end of this year, any move to Japan would hinge on him being granted an early release.
Cheika, meanwhile, is still hopeful Barnes will reconsider his interest in moving to Japan.
He suspects Barnes might be one of several players at the Waratahs who are disillusioned by NSW's performances in recent years before Cheika came on board as their new coach.
Besides Barnes, Cheika also faces the prospect of losing Wallabies second-rower Sitaleki Timani to French club Montpellier at the end of the year.
''Obviously, there is a bit of a hangover from what's happened over the last couple of years, and guys naturally would think about leaving,'' Cheika said.
''[But] every player has totally committed to the way that we are - I would say our ethic this year and our attitude. And if a player at the end does decide to leave [NSW] then he is going to miss out on that, isn't he? So hopefully that is the environment we are building.''
Should Barnes leave for Japan, Cheika did not believe he would be lost to Australian rugby - and the Wallabies - forever. At 26 and pending the length of any contract in Japan, he could still return to Australia in time for the 2015 World Cup.
It is a requirement that all players in consideration for Wallabies selection play in Australia, and the ARU has remained firm on that.
Cheika also believes that playing in Japan would not have a negative impact on Barnes's game. Citing his experience as coach of Stade Francais last year when former Wallabies breakaway George Smith was seconded to the Parisian club from Suntory Goliath, Cheika said: ''Look at George Smith. He came and played in France for me for a few months … it didn't look like [playing in Japan] affected him too much.''
Cheika said he had been open with his Waratahs playing squad about potential moves by Barnes and Timani overseas. ''As far as I am concerned, 2013 is an important year … whatever Berrick or any other player decided to do going down the track is up to them,'' he said.
Asked if he had been trying to convince Barnes to change his mind, Cheika said: ''Every day when we are at training.''
But Cheika was pragmatic about how best to stop any off-contract player at the Waratahs being lured by rich overseas clubs.
''If I do the right thing in relation to how I run the place, and they feel they are getting a good rugby program, and obviously the money is not too ridiculously less than what they might get in Europe, then I am creating an environment that people want to be in,'' he said.
''But we have to be realistic of a professional sports environment. In relation to Berrick … if he is thinking about making [a move to Japan] we are going to make it very hard for him to leave - not by anything else bar the way the team behaves this year and the way the team plays.''
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