WARATAHS and Wallabies lock Will Skelton has been lost to Australian rugby after signing a two-season deal with English club Saracens.
The Aviva Premiership and European champions made the announcement on Tuesday, confirming reports in the Daily Telegraph the parties were in negotiation from mid-February.
Skelton said the decision to sign overseas was a difficult one and that he still harboured an ambition to play for the Wallabies again one day.
But with his Saracens contract due to expire only months before the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Skelton's chances of playing at the tournament under Michael Cheika would be slim.
It is yet another blow for the depth of Australia rugby but in an unusual twist, Skelton's deal was the byproduct of an ARU-endorsed audition for Saracens over summer.
Skelton, 24, joined the club on a short-term deal after the Wallabies' Spring Tour, and played seven games.
After returning to Australia, Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall admitted the club was keen for Skelton to return long-term.
They got their man but in a Saracens' press release, Skelton said it was a tough call, made as much for family as it was for rugby reasons.
"I am very excited to be returning to Saracens. This time around I am signing a longer-term deal, so it's been a really big decision and one I haven't made lightly," Skelton said.
"It's not easy leaving the NSW Waratahs and the Wallabies - Darryl Gibson and Michael Cheika have been fantastic for my career so far and I want to thank them for everything they have done for me, on and off the field.
"Not being able to pull on the gold jersey while I am playing in England has made the decision especially difficult, but this is about family as much as it is football. One day I'd love to play for Australia again and if that opportunity comes up I will give everything I've got for my country. My wife Kate and I are looking forward to working and living on the other side of the world, and everything that brings."
McCall said Saracens is "absolutely delighted" with Skelton's return. Interestingly, the club said Skelton would join Saracens at the start of their season - in August - but he would likely only be released after the Spring Tour.
"In a very short space of time here his contribution to the side was superb, he showed a real appetite to improve his game and he was very popular among all the players and staff," McCall said.
"There's still so much more to come from him, which is incredibly exciting for us as he is already a proven international player so we're looking forward to welcoming him back later this year."
Skelton made his debut for NSW in 2013 and has played 58 times for the Waratahs.
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