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Opinion

Joseph Suaalii playing NRL before he turns 18 is literally a matter of life and death

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Editor
3rd August, 2020
221
3763 Reads

People making declarations of sympathy for Joseph Suaalii in the national press are so full of it.

Coaches, players, pundits and journalists alike have been keen to pontificate about how “sorry” they feel for the schoolboy, pointing out the weight of expectation sitting squarely on his broad, 17-year-old shoulders.

Are we to believe they aren’t aware of the platform they’re standing on when expressing their faux-commiserations?

Do they not realise they’re essentially standing in front of thousands of people, holding up a poster of Suaalii and screaming into a bullhorn: “See this boy right here? Look very closely because all this attention you’re paying him isn’t healthy.

He has my pity!”

Nevertheless it’s a platitude that apparently needs to be uttered when discussing the hottest young product in the rugby codes, lest someone accuse you of having anything other than the purest of intentions for his future.

It’s bullshit. And I won’t buy into it.

Obviously I wish my namesake well, but I simply cannot muster any sympathy for someone whose ‘dilemma’ is which multi-million-dollar contract to sign.

And good on him. He’s obviously talented and has worked hard to translate that talent into big-money offers at a young age.

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But, again, he won’t get my pity for being in these circumstances.

As far as having unreasonable pressure on him, well he’s far from the first to be saddled with the weight of expectation before he can watch R-rated movies.

From his early teenage years, Kalyn Ponga was being chased by rugby league, rugby union, AFL and probably golf, given he won the under-13 New Zealand championship. He was slightly older and more experienced than Suaalii when he signed a four-year, multi-million-dollar contract with the Knights, but at 18 and with just two NRL matches to his name, it was a lot of pressure on a young man.

Kurtley Beale is the poster child of youthful expectation, having signed with the Waratahs aged 16, and attended Wallabies training camps at 17. But the microscope was on him at St Joseph’s College from the age of 12 – I know, I was there watching him on College A (probably standing next to a bunch of agents).

And long before either of them, a flat-topped freak with a devastating left-foot step by the name of Bradley Fittler was the wunderkind squinting into the media spotlight, having made his first-grade debut for the Panthers aged 17 and gone on tour with the Kangaroos as an 18-year-old.

Brad Fittler

Brad Fittler knows plenty about making a young debut. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Amazing young players attract attention. It’s not ideal but it happens and Suaalii is merely the latest to experience the glare – the difference for him is that at least he’ll be generously compensated for it.

Having said all that, don’t mistake my lack of pity for a lack of care. Just because I don’t feel sorry for him doesn’t mean I want anything but best for young Joseph.

Getting set up financially is a smart move that makes life simpler – as Forrest Gump said after Lieutenant Dan got him invested in some kind of fruit company and told him he didn’t have to worry about money no more, “That’s good. One less thing.” – but life is about more than money.

And that’s the area where the NRL will have made a critical error if they allow Suaalii to play first grade before he turns 18. Because it shows a profound lack of care for his long-term wellbeing, proving the sympathetic declarations were hollow all along.

The rule that stops those under the legal age to drink or vote from playing in the National Rugby League may seem arbitrary, but the reasoning behind establishing it was as serious as it gets.

Specifically, it was introduced after five emerging players had taken their own lives between 2013 and March 2015.

And this is where the whole ‘if you’re good enough you’re old enough’ argument falls apart. Because plenty are physically ready to play NRL before their 18th birthday, but there’s no way to assess whether they have the emotional and mental fortitude required at such a tender age.

What’s more, the problems this causes may not be apparent immediately or on the field.

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So the rule was established in the interest of protecting young players.

But now Peter V’landys is prepared to break it for Suaalii because Rugby Australia are chasing him too?

Pete, no. That’s a terrible reason to ignore an initiative that is in place for the welfare of people who, according to the Family Law Act 1975, are literal children.

V’landys has been a great wartime leader for the NRL, slashing red tape to get things done. But in this instance, he’s using coronavirus as an excuse to do seemingly whatever he wants.

“We are in a medical emergency at the moment and in these sort of emergencies organisations at the moment are applying crisis management,” he told News Corp last week, in a piece where he essentially confirmed he was going to break the ‘must be 18 to play NRL’ rule to ensure Souths sign Suaalii.

Now, it would be arrogant for the NRL to simply dismiss RA out of hand, but rugby union poses no greater threat to league in this country today than it did before COVID-19 hit.

So, yet again, I call bullshit. Letting Suaalii play first grade has got absolutely nothing to do with managing the NRL’s response to the global health crisis.

Seriously, how does getting a teenager to sign with the Bunnies relate to a pandemic?

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No, this is a case of V’landys using COVID to cover the fact he’s obliterating a rule that has player welfare at its core.

“I am always going to act in the best interests of the game no matter what criticism I get,” he said in that same piece.

“I really don’t care.”

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But while it may seem indirect, this rule is for the benefit of the game, because it protects young players and their mental health. Taking care of your employees is central to good business – you should care.

And what is the reason for making Suaalii exempt? Because he’s too good to be playing against schoolboys at this stage of his development? Based on what we’ve seen, Bradman Best would have been ready to play NRL all last year, but he was made to cool his heels until he turned 18.

Likewise Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, who spent 2019 scoring tries for fun in the Mal Meninga Cup. NRL players don’t get picked as teenagers unless they’ve proven themselves as more than handy in lesser comps – the argument ‘they’re good enough’ is easily made.

Or is it simply because RA are keen to sign Suaalii? Guess what, ‘interest’ from a rival code is present for every talented young athlete – the entire first XV in my year at Joeys, as well as half the seconds, got letters of interest from multiple clubs.

If your precedent is that scouts from a different code have taken a youngster out for lunch, that box has been ticked by every half-decent teenager in the country.

Discretion is all well and good, but the reasons being applied to let Suaalii play will be replicated in no time flat.

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And if we let 17-year-olds back in, what’s to stop us going younger? Jordan Rankin played top flight at 16 as recently as 2008. I mean, as long as it’s “in the best interests of the game”, why not let that happen again?

As I said, the age barrier may seem arbitrary, but that’s the case with everything that is handed to and expected of an Australian when they turn 18. Nothing really changes for a person between 11:59pm on the day they’re 17 and 364 days and a minute later when they turn 18, but the laws of this country determine that’s when you become an adult. So I guess, if you are legally of age to make any and all of your own decisions, you can’t really be told you’re too young to play first grade.

But the NRL have determined any younger than 18 is too young to cope with the pressures of first-grade football. And, again, they came to this decision after five young people died in tragic, senseless circumstances.

So for the NRL to allow Suaalii to be exempt from this rule shows callous disregard for his welfare – and V’landys admitted as much when he said he was prepared to break this rule in order to stop RA from signing the schoolboy because it was in “the best interests of the game” rather than the best interests of Suaalii (um, he also clued us in when he openly stated “I really don’t care”, like a cool high-school rebel who’s been caught smoking in the dunnies).

ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys

ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

In his favour, at least the chairman didn’t say, “I feel sorry for Joseph, who we’ll be letting play first grade next year.”

The really frustrating thing is that Suaalii will be 18 on August 1, 2021. If we return to a normal season next year, that means he would be eligible for first grade by Round 20.

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So V’landys is ready to turf a decent, player-first rule, which – and I just can’t stress this enough – is in place to protect children because five people died, all because one kid doesn’t want to wait five short months until he can play first grade.

Oh, and the whole time he waits, Suallii will still be getting paid better money than 75 per cent of the guys who are out on the park.

And V’landys’ justification is, some-crazy-how, “because coronavirus”.

Look, maybe the boy is ready to play first grade and he’ll absolutely brain it. But that’s not the point.

This sets a precedent that every club with a gun teenager on their books will look to exploit and there will be scant reason for NRL HQ to say no.

But more importantly, it sends a message that getting one over on the game’s historic enemy is more important than taking care of the young players who are its future.

It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for Joseph Suaalii.

Almost.

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The Roar encourages all readers who may be suffering from mental illness to seek support from organisations such as Lifeline, Beyond Blue or Headspace.