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Opinion

Are the NRL sure that they are ok with young Suaalii mixing with the likes of Rudolf?

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Expert
17th March, 2021
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Andrew Abdo says that the NRL have gone through a rigorous process in order to grant 17-year-old wunderkind Joseph Suaalii an exemption to play NRL first grade before his 18th birthday.

“Our decision is based on the independent advice of experts and information gathered from discussing Joseph’s school performance and discussions with the club and Joseph’s family,” Abdo said.

“Given Joseph turns 18 in just four months’ time, the conservative approach the Roosters are taking in managing Joseph’s career, and the comprehensive education and wellbeing plans that are being implemented, the Commission decided to grant the club permission for Joseph’s contract to be registered prior to him turning 18.”

There has been an outcry among some fans that this decision is just another demonstration that the Roosters are the darlings of the NRL administrators and get whatever they ask for, whenever they ask for it.

To paraphrase George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, a common sentiment is that ‘All clubs are equal, but the Roosters are more equal than others.’

Whether that is the case or not, I am in favour of Suaalii being allowed to play for two key reasons:

1. There is a history of great players debuting before their 18th birthday, and
2. There is no way that Trent Robinson would play someone who wasn’t ready both mentally and physically.

Make no mistake, Suaalii is a long term investment for the Tricolours and Robinson would not be willing to risk that investment for a short term gain.

Off the top of my head I can name Andrew Ettingshausen, Brad Fittler, Laurie Daley, Tim Brasher, Israel Folau and Jason Taumalolo who debuted before they were 18.

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All of these guys are superstars.

Brad Fittler

Brad Fittler debuted young and lived to tell the tale. (Photo by Getty Images)

However, I became somewhat more reserved in my view after last month Jordan Rankin, who himself debuted for the Titans at the age of just 16, argued against Suaalii being granted an exemption.

“A blanket rule keeps kids safe,” Rankin told AAP.

“It doesn’t make them have to try and be better than what they are at a certain point in their career.

“I’m not worried about [Suaalii] physically at all. He’s quite a physical, kid … It’s the mental side of it. It’s the papers; it’s everything else in between.”

He continued, “It [debuting at 16] was the greatest thing that happened in my career to date, but it wasn’t the right thing.

“If I had my time again and had the chance to say no or someone could have for me, that would have been the best thing for me.

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“It stunted my career; it took me two, three years to get over.

“I expected myself to be somewhere where everyone else thought I was going to be.”

When Shane Richardson announced in 2015 that players couldn’t debut until the year they would turn 19, it was based on the experiences of the likes of Rankin.

“The information we’ve gathered about player welfare is that decisions should be made about their future when they turn 18, [and not before]. People will give you anecdotal evidence of Brad Fittler playing etc, but it’s a small minority compared to the welfare issues of the greater majority.”

And while there is no question that Fittler and Daley were ready for the football field, it didn’t mean that the dressing rooms that they were included in were appropriate places where their emotional and behavioural development were a primary concern.

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Joseph Suaalii (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

I believe Trent Robinson will be doing his utmost to ensure that the type of behaviour that Fittler, Daley, Brasher and Ettingshausen experienced in the 1980s dressing sheds isn’t experienced by young Joseph.

However, even the most recent evidence suggests that behaviour and attitudes of the type that aren’t appropriate for minors – which Suaalii is still classified as until 31 July 2021 – still exists in those very sheds.

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Case in point is the statement by Sharks lock forward Toby Rudolf following his side’s win over the Dragons in Round 1. When asked by Fox presenter Bryan Fletcher just how he was planning to celebrate the win Rudolf replied, “I’ll probably have about a thousand beers, then head to Northies and probably try and pull something. Anything’ll do.”

Now, from the outset it was clear that Rudolf was joking and his subsequent rejoinder that, “Nah, Honestly it’s all about recovery these days” reinforced that. However, the NRL has issued a formal warning to Rudolf over the remarks.

Abdo was clear in his reasoning.

“I was very disappointed with Toby’s comments, they were inappropriate and should not have been said,” Abdo said.

“We are going to issue Toby with a formal warning and I know the club are going to counsel him so there is not a repeat. Respect for women is one of the foundations of our society and our players, as role models, need to be leaders in this area.”

The truth is that we do have to be more sensitive in regards to what offends others. A few years ago I was soundly upbraided for using the “R” word (it refers to a person with impaired cognitive function).

I loved using it but I now understand that it genuinely upset people. So I’ve stopped using it. It was the right thing to do.

Just last year I pointed out that the world has moved on from where it was when I started watching rugby league 40 years ago and some things that were acceptable back then are rightly not acceptable now.

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A few years ago I also railed against Kevin Proctor’s assault on Jordan Rapana’s testicles being treated as no more than a misdemeanour. Lots of people thought the disgusting act was hilarious.

So while I – and many others – found Rudolf’s remarks amusing, they did indicate that there is a culture of enjoying the excess consumption of alcohol and randomly seeking sexual congress within the NRL fans, player groups and the media.

Further, Abdo’s own comments display an innate heterosexual assumption in that he extrapolated Rudolph’s intent to “pull” as relating solely to women, when that was not specified.

So it is clear that, while the game has come a long way, we still have a ways to go if we are to achieve – as much as is possible – political correctness.

And it is into this world that Joseph Suaalii is going now with the NRL’s blessing.

I’m sure the Roosters will be keeping a keen eye on the situations that the lad is exposed to so that he is kept away from alcohol and from any risk of an adult engaging in coitus with him – a minor in the sight of the law until 1 August 2021 – while under their care.

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Because you can be assured that there will be those who will be very interested in exposing any such instances for their own interests.

As I said, I support him being allowed to play right now. However, my perspective as merely a spectator in the Coliseum watching the gladiators fight, is only in regard to his footballing ability. I’m trusting that Trent Robinson is the high-grade human and mentor I believe him to be and that he will look after Suaalii.

However, if Suaalii ends up as a sexist, drunk with an overactive sense of entitlement who ends up involved in scandals, or simply fades away and never reaches his perceived potential, will we again reflect on the propriety of letting kids play a man’s game too early?

Here’s hoping those scenarios don’t eventuate and Suaalii goes on to have a blemish-free and successful career – just like Fittler and Daley before him.