Rugby Australia's hopes of signing star teenager Joseph Suaalii appear to be fading fast with news NRL club South Sydney Rabbitohs are poised to offer the 16-year-old fullback a four-year deal worth $[Aus]2 million.
Suaalii has been the subject of a tug-o-war between the two codes for more than two years after he hit the headlines as a 14-year-old in Sydney's GPS rugby First XV schoolboy competition.
But the race to sign him to a long-term deal has shifted significantly in favour of the NRL, who originally inked him on a two-year contract early last year, with Rugby Australia's perilous financial position well documented.
As the NRL prepares to enter the fifth round of its resumed competition, Rugby Australia is yet to even unveil its planned domestic Super Rugby tournament.
RA acting chief executive Rob Clarke last week announced the axing of 47 fulltime staff in the first round of administrative cuts within the organisation with more to follow, including those to high-performance structures around the country.
Those redundancies come after senior executive staff at RA had earlier accepted salary cuts of 30 percent while Australia's professional players had in April agreed to sweeping average reductions of 60 percent.
Many players have as a result sought contract advice or investigated their options overseas, although only Queensland Reds Izack Rodda, Isaac Lucas and Harry Hockings have so far officially departed Australian rugby.
While signing a teenager on a big-money deal in the middle of the financial chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic would no doubt cause ruptures across the code, there is the very real question as to whether they are able to offer Suaalii any sort of competitive offer to begin with.
According to The Sunday Telegraph, the Rabbitohs want to roll Suaalii's current deal into a four-year contract that would make him the first $2 million teenager in the game.
The huge interest in a 16-year-old is understandable for anyone who has seen Suaalii play either rugby or rugby league.
As a member of the The King's School First XV over the past two years, Suaalii has terrorised opposition defences out wide, earning selection in the Australia Under 18s outfit that upset New Zealand last year.
One veteran schoolboy rugby coach declared him the "most athletic player I've seen in 20 years of coaching."
"He's physically 3-4 years ahead of his age group and is very much in the Izzy [Israel] Folau mould in terms of the way he runs and steps," sources told ESPN.
Suaalii also starred for Souths in the Harold Matthews Cup [Under 16s] in 2019 but was strangely absent through the opening weeks of the SG Ball [Under 18s] competition this season before it was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Suaalii had however been involved in training sessions with Souths' first-grade squad.
But he will be able to line up for The King's School this year with the loosening of coronavirus restrictions set to see the GPS rugby competition kick-off midway through term three in August.
Given his representative deeds last year, he would then likely be a certainty for higher honours including the annual Schoolboys/Under 18s Test against New Zealand if indeed it is able to be played amid the pandemic.
It is that kind of reputation that reportedly saw Dave Rennie meet with Suaalii during his visit to Australia at the start of the year, admittedly one that took place before the onset of the coronavirus which last week led Rennie to take a 30 percent pay cut himself.
The Olympics could be the other added carrot to help sway Suaalii towards rugby, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
With the Tokyo Olympics delayed by 12 months, Suaalii would be approaching his 18th birthday by the end of the Games and the Sevens program has previously awarded special dispensation for 17-year-olds to represent Australia at senior level. But it could all be sorted in August when Suaalii turns 17 and Souths are then permitted to sign him to a fully-fledged NRL contract.
Given the two codes' different trajectories and Australian rugby's current state of uncertainty, which includes no real picture of what its next broadcast deal and therefore what kind of revenue it will generate, it would be a brave move for Suaalii to choose rugby over the NRL.
And it seems Rugby Australia's only play will be what they can offer him on the field - a potential line-up of Olympic Sevens, a Rugby World Cup and a British & Irish Lions series - rather than the $2 million the Bunnies will reportedly present in two months' time.