By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A sudden shortage of locks in Australian rugby has opened the door for Matt Philip to reclaim his Wallabies jersey but the Melbourne Rebel says the uncertainties wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have left him with a difficult choice.
The Australian newspaper on Thursday named Philip among 16 Rebels players either set to leave the Super Rugby club or seriously considering it, underscoring the challenge Rugby Australia (RA) faces to retain talent.
Linked with a move to Pau in France's Top 14, Philip told Reuters he had yet to settle his playing future and that his decision could come down to a mental tug-of-war between a Wallabies jersey and the security of a European contract.
"I’ve been speaking to some European clubs -- it’s just talks at the moment and I’m still just focusing on what's in front of me at the Rebels," the 26-year-old, who won three caps for Australia in 2017, said in an interview.
"It’s an exciting thing about rugby, you do get these opportunities overseas.
"But at the same time I’ve grown up here loving the Wallabies so it’s not the easiest thing in the world. A lot of thought will have to go into it."
Should Philip decide his future lies outside Australia, it will add to incoming Wallabies coach Dave Rennie's problems in the second row.
Wallabies lock Izack Rodda and two of his Queensland Reds team mates terminated their contracts after refusing to take pay-cuts agreed by RA and the players' union.
One of the other Reds pay-cut rebels, Harry Hockings, is a towering 21-year-old lock seen as having a big Wallabies future.
Both are expected to move abroad and be unavailable for selection for the Wallabies, whose second-row stocks were already looking thin after the World Cup last year.
'RUGBY STILL A BUSINESS'
The Reds trio were pilloried by former players and media pundits for "deserting" Australia in its time of need, but Philip said no-one had the right to judge given the uncertainties facing the domestic game.
Super Rugby was suspended in March and is highly unlikely to resume this year due to travel curbs and border controls, leaving the nation's players with little security about their long-term pay, especially with no broadcasting deal after 2020.
"People don’t understand others' circumstances and it’s been a tough period for everyone," said Philip.
"At the end of the day, rugby is still a business and in the business world – not that I’ve had much to do with it – this happens all the time."
Rugby is nearing a return in Australia with RA setting up a domestic tournament featuring the country's four Super Rugby teams plus Perth-based Western Force.
RA are in also talks with the Sunwolves to join the competition slated for July-September, but few give the Tokyo-based team much chance of participating due to travel curbs.
Philip, who has had a number of positive chats with Rennie and his assistant coaches, was in good form for the Rebels before the season was suspended and hopes to pick up where he left off when the "Super Rugby AU" competition kicks off.
While he relishes the home derbies, like other local players he thinks Super Rugby with its long-haul trips to South Africa, Argentina and Japan has passed its shelf life.
"Something needs to happen, I’m not the guy to tell you what that is," he said. "But something does need to change to help rugby thrive again in Australia – like it should be."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)