After just five games, Joseph Suaalii’s first season is over, having suffered a foot injury at training that will require surgery and a five-month recovery.
It’s an inauspicious end to the high-school student’s debut year in the NRL and confirmation that he should not have been allowed to feature in top flight prior to his 18th birthday – which, for the record, is still 12 days away.
Obviously injury is part and parcel of professional sport, and with Suaalii hopefully set for a long and successful career, this is unlikely to be the only occasion he goes under the knife.
But while I obviously don’t have access to his medical records, when you suffer an injury of this seriousness at training, it certainly suggests that despite having the frame of an adult – he stands at 196 centimetres and tips the scales at 98 kilos – Suaalii’s body was not yet ready for the rigours of full-time first grade.
It’s sort of beside the point though.
As I outlined last year, when Suaalii was still signed to Souths but being courted by Rugby Australia, “for the NRL to allow Suaalii to be exempt from this rule shows callous disregard for his welfare”.
The rule that stopped anyone under the age of 18 from playing first grade was brought in ahead of the 2016 season, largely as a result of a number of young players taking their own lives.
“The information we’ve gathered about player welfare is that decisions should be made about their future when they turn 18,” Shane Richardson, who recommended the rule, said at the time.
“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.”
Of course, Peter V’landys pushed ahead with the decision to ignore this player welfare issue and the Tricolours announced in March of this year that Suaalii would be allowed to lace up ahead of his 18th birthday.
The reasoning set out by the ARLC included that Suaalii had undergone extensive medical and psychological testing, the Roosters had created a welfare plan for him, and, as Andrew Abdo put it, “Joseph turns 18 in just four months’ time”.
The very fact they made him undergo these tests and create a welfare plan shows the NRL knew they were dealing with an issue that was sketchy at best. Like, if no other player requires these steps – and I’m not saying they don’t, just that clubs don’t need to present a case like this to allow other young men to play – then maybe it shouldn’t be done?
As for turning 18 in just four months, how about just four months is a ridiculously short amount of time to wait, particularly in the interest of preserving player welfare?
Instead, Suaalii has blown the door open for any big kid with a big contract to play first grade, because you can put the word ‘just’ in front of any amount of time to minimise it. And no club will hesitate to ask, since why should only the Roosters get this leg-up?
I mean, Abdo flagged this was the case, saying other exemptions “would be very rare” – not that this was a one-off.
It reminded me of Mila Kunis landing the role of Jackie Burkhart in That ’70s Show when she was 14 years old.
“I told them I was gonna be 18, which… is not technically a lie, ’cause at one point, given all things went right, I was gonna be 18,” she said in 2010.
Got a 16-year-old on your club’s books who you’re eager to debut? Just get Andrew or Peter to explain that he’s “gonna be 18” – it’s not technically a lie.
The entire affair has been a massive blunder on the part of the NRL, one that has far-reaching consequences for future player welfare prospects, all in the name of letting one kid play decent-enough footy for five games.
And that’s really been the kicker: he’s been decent enough.
Suaalii has shown flashes of the brilliance of which he is clearly capable, but he was supposed to be an absolute freak – Sonny Bill Williams meets Greg Inglis – who would run away with the NRL Rookie of the Year award, such would be the impact he would have in his first season.
Instead, he was solid without being spectacular across his five matches, accruing one try, one try assist, two line breaks and an average of 52 running metres per game, while making 63 tackles at 85.1 per cent efficiency.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this kind of output, but to argue his development would be stunted if he only played reggies in 2020 goes out the window unless he absolutely shot the lights out in first grade.
I’ve no doubt he’ll be better for the run come 2022, but ‘because it’ll make him better next year’ really isn’t a reason to allow him to circumvent the rule that stops 17-year-olds playing NRL – I mean, it’s generally true of all players until they hit their peak in their mid-to-late 20s.
Not that it would have made up for the fact that the ‘not before you turn 18’ rule is primarily about long-term mental health, but the only way we could have even entertained the merits of Suaalii being given an exemption was for him to blitz his first year.
Instead, as a 17-year-old Suaalii was good without being great, then his body broke down after he had played just enough games to stop him from being eligible for the Rookie of the Year award next season.
In an era where we stop concussed players from returning to the field for their own good, the administrators needed to protect Suaalii from himself and simply say he can wait his turn – “it’s just four months” – much like fellow teenagers Reece Walsh and Sam Walker did.
The NRL owe Suaalii an apology – they should admit they were wrong to allow this situation to occur, promise that they’ve learnt their lesson and that it won’t happen again.
It’s the right thing by Joseph Suaalii and, perhaps more importantly, it redraws a line in the sand that should never have moved in the first place.