Former Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock suspects Michael Cheika is already hunting down Matt Giteau and George Smith for a spectacular Test comeback at this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Giteau, Smith and winger Drew Mitchell can all return to play for the Wallabies after the ARU on Wednesday announced a stunning backflip on its eligibility rules.
ARU chief executive Bill Pulver revealed the change to allow an elite few, much-capped players based offshore to be selected for Australia – immediately.
Until granting Wallabies five-eighth Bernard Foley its first-ever “flexible contract” last week, the ARU had refused to entertain the possibility of overseas-based players being selected for Tests.
But those who have earned 60 Test caps and held a contract with Australian rugby for at least seven years can now be picked.
Giteau, the reigning European player of the year, welcomed the “massive news” with an early-morning tweet from Toulon.
The 32-year-old’s Heineken Cup-winning teammate Mitchell and champion flanker Smith, currently also in France at Lyon, are the other two big winners from the dramatic shift in policy.
Looking beyond the World Cup, a swag of other stars heading overseas, including Wallabies vice-captain Adam Ashley-Cooper plus Will Genia and 2011 World Cup skipper James Horwill, will be available for selection if they play at least two more Tests this year.
Despite calling France home for the past four years, Giteau retains a burning desire to play in the World Cup after being bitterly disappointed to have been controversially overlooked by former coach Robbie Deans for the 2011 global showpiece.
Only on Monday, the 92-Test playmaker told The Times in London the ARU needed to change the rules and he’d cherish a return to the Wallabies.
“I miss the big games, the big atmospheres, but the rules are there for a reason,” Giteau said.
“They need changing, but if it was something the coaches were interested in, then I’d love to play for my country again.”
The policy change was approved by the ARU board and endorsed by the Australian Super Rugby franchise CEOs and the Players’ Association this week.
“It’s a decision that recognises the changing dynamics of a global rugby market for professional players,” Pulver said.
“Combined with our other recruitment and retention strategies, we feel this decision allows the ARU to assert more influence over player movement and contracting in Australia and abroad.
“The policy also encourages those players who have not yet reached that point to commit exclusively to Australian rugby in the prime of their career.
“In this way, we believe the policy supports Super Rugby by encouraging our top players to remain in Australia for longer.”
Under the revised ARU policy, players returning to Australia from overseas who make a two-year commitment to an Australian Super Rugby Club will also be eligible to represent the Wallabies immediately upon their return.
Pulver said the ARU believed having the option to select overseas-based players to represent the Wallabies would encourage the repatriation of Australians currently playing in foreign competitions.
Mortlock welcomed the “fantastic news”, saying the likes of Giteau and Smith would be welcome additions if Cheika wanted them back in the fold.
“Often when you look at a World Cup campaign, you need leaders to be the ones who can stand up under the pressure of the big matches that matter,” he told AAP.
Australia’s 2007 World Cup captain, Mortlock described Smith as the best player he’d played with.
“He was a freak,” he said.
“I don’t know what his position is, but the reality is the last time he played for the Wallabies (against the British and Irish Lions in 2013), he was more than up to it.
“So he actually has more recent experience playing for the Wallabies (than Giteau).”