Australian Rugby Union boss John O’Neill is adamant he won’t pay “crazy money” for Quade Cooper, but remains confident the star five-eighth will stay with the 15-man game.
The stakes were raised in the battle for Cooper’s services when his manager Richard Colreavy met NRL officials on Monday in the wake of interest from league clubs Parramatta and Newcastle.
The 22-year-old has reportedly been offered $500,000 a year to join the Eels, while the ARU have tabled a guaranteed $350,000 plus match payments which could take his earnings to $600,000 a season.
O’Neill, who has sought to rein in player payments, said he would not be bullied into paying overs for Cooper, the player whose meteoric rise has made him a key to Australia’s World Cup challenge next year.
“We’re confident we can come to an arrangement with Quade that’s in his best interests, not just financially but for him as a person and someone who can make an enormous mark on our game,” O’Neill told reporters on Tuesday.
“He is a very important and valuable part of the future of Australian rugby and particularly the Wallabies, but we won’t be paying crazy money, it will be money that’s appropriate for a player of his value.”
That value, according to O’Neill, is similar to a group of emerging young Wallabies.
“We’ve also got a fair number of players who are in the same category as a Quade Cooper,” he said.
“Quade is one of a number of young players – James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, David Pocock – who are vital to the next few years and we’ve got to be careful we don’t create anomalies.”
The ARU’s preference is to lock Cooper into a three-year deal that will ensure he plays in the World Cup in New Zealand next year and against the touring British and Irish Lions in 2013.
“We’d prefer three (years), perhaps two but three would be a preference,” O’Neill said.
“If I was planning my career as a player those two events are as good as they get.”
O’Neill last spoke with Cooper on Friday but said dialogue was ongoing between Colreavy and ARU negotiator Peter Friend, while coach Robbie Deans had also been speaking with his star No.10.
The ARU boss made a rare appearance at Wallabies training on Tuesday, explaining the visit as a chance to catch up with fellow spectators Mark Ella and Simon Poidevin.
But O’Neill is now less confident the Cooper deal will be in the bag before the Wallabies fly out on Friday for two Tri-Nations Tests against South Africa in Pretoria on August 28 and Bloemfontein on September 4.
“It’s still possible but it’s got to be a tidy deal, you don’t want to leave anything to chance,” he said.
“If it could be done by Friday, by the time the team flies to South Africa, I think that would be in everyone’s best interest … because the preparation of the team for two big Tests in South Africa has to be without distractions.
“We are still keen to have it resolved this week but it’s not die in a ditch if we don’t.”
Wallabies captain Rocky Elsom dead-batted questions about Cooper on Tuesday.
“I can’t stop you talking about it but I can not talk about it,” he said.