On the cusp of a new season, NRL-bound Wallabies flyer Mark Nawaqanitawase begins his long goodbye to rugby union
The circus around Waratahs and Wallabies winger Mark Nawaqanitawase’s move to rugby league has well and truly begun and it won’t slow down until he pulls on a Roosters jersey in a little over 12 months time.
It’s easy to understand the novelty — Nawaqanitawase is the first incumbent Wallaby without league experience to cross codes in almost three decades and the pot-shots fired between both sports in recent times means a move of this magnitude will provide plenty of grist for the content mill.
For his part, Nawaqanitawase is doing what he can to block out the noise ahead of his farewell season with the Waratahs.
He’ll be asked about rugby league throughout the pre-season and whenever New South Wales hits a flat spot, so he’ll get plenty of practice.
“I knew it was going to be what it was. I have no control over how people react, so I can’t let it bother me,” said Nawaqanitawase.
“People ask me in the media and I’ll hear about it then, but after that I’ll be back home doing me. I don’t have to worry about looking too far ahead.
“When I was younger I could get caught up in what was going to happen and not what was happening in that very moment. I had to learn how to enjoy my footy when I was running around.?
Nawaqanitawase will play a straight bat to most league questions over the course of the season — he claims he doesn’t remember if the Roosters approached him first or if it was the other way around — but the only question that really matters to most is how he’s going to go in the new game.
The 23-year old is one of rugby’s great success stories of recent years, a home-grown product who’s become one of the most dangerous wingers in Super Rugby and a regular for the Wallabies.
As such, Nawaqanitawase’s skills as an open-field runner and finisher, as well as his ability in broken play, is well-known but with the differences between league and union as stark as they’ve ever been it’s still a journey into uncharted waters.
Someone with more experience than most of the distance between the two codes is returning Waratah Triston Reilly, who’s returned to the club after two seasons with Wests Tigers.
Reilly has bounced between both games since his schoolboy days and played three NRL matches for the Tigers last year before re-joining the Tahs.
“League is really physical, you make a lot more tackles. Union you have a bit more space, especially in the back three, but your body gets hardened in league,” said Reilly.
“But even union has changed in the two seasons I was away. Coming back to the Tahs, because I was here before, the speed of the game, the ball-in play time has really changed.
“There’s always a lot of stop-start, but those times you’re in the game are really intense. Our strength and conditioning coaches are making us more explosive to adapt to that.”
There’s still unfinished business as Nawaqanitawase begins his long goodbye — he’ll form a crackerjack backline alongside the likes of Max Jorgensen, Izaia Perese, Dylan Pietsch and Lalakai Foketi.
With that kind of strike, a team should be aiming high and Reilly, who’s gunning for a bench spot to begin the season, is under no illusions as to the capabilities of the side.
“The better the players the more you get out of training, you all make each other better,” Reilly said.
“We want to finish in the top four and go deep into the finals. We’re playing to win Super Rugby, we have goals to be the best Aussie team in the comp.”