Playing Suaalii early would set a dangerous precedent

The Roosters and the NRL need to calm their farm, cool their jets and by the by … bide their time. To view the issue with clarity, you need to know something of the background of why the rule was first brought in.

Rare for the NRL, the rule was proposed and accepted purely and simply for the welfare of young players. While it is one thing to have teenagers star at schoolboy level, there had been too many instances of clubs throwing young players into the cauldron of top-grade rugby league – likely the most gruelling football competition on the planet – before they were ready, and damaging them. For every Brad Fittler, Israel Folau and Mitchell Pearce who coped at 17 and even prospered, there were players like Adam Ritson, Paul Mellor and Jordan Rankin whose careers suffered after being thrown in too young.

Joseph Suaalii says he is ready for the NRL.Credit:Getty

Beyond the physical rigours though were the mental ones, and what prompted the rule change in 2015, was the tragic early deaths of five young men from the National Youth Competition, who had seemingly not coped with all the pressure that early stardom had placed upon them.

“We did a detailed study of those kids and what happened to them,” the NRL’s head of game strategy and development Shane Richardson explained as they brought the new rule in. “We had a long look at it, and worked internally with the … people that work for us here, about what it’s done to families or otherwise so it had a real effect on it. It didn’t have as big an impact on me in the beginning than it did in the end.”

But by the end of the study he and his fellow administrators were convinced.

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“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 after all, it merely brought the NRL into line with other fierce football codes where it had long been recognised that such an age welfare rule was needed. You cannot play in the NFL until three years after you have graduated from high school. In professional rugby you must be at least 18 to play, and 19 if you play in the front row. In ice hockey and the fierce NHL, you have to be 18.

To those who still oppose this vital and well-researched approach to mitigating damage to young men, tell me: what is the actual downside of Suaalii waiting? The most obvious downside is that the Roosters will have to do without a maestro on the wing for most of the season, and leave him in the wings. It is a tough one but I think, given how star-studded their entire side is, they can learn to live with it, yes?

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The second downside is that those of us who like watching rugby league, will be denied the pleasure of watching him for another five months. Another extremely tough one, and yet I think we will cope, yes?

But look to the upsides! The key one – beyond likely ensuring a higher mark in his HSC! – is this: you keep Suaalii safer to shine at a later point. Just by being patient you give his body precious time to get stronger and be better able to withstand the devastating hits that are coming his way, as huge men from opposing teams line up the young genius to give him their own version of “Welcome to first grade, son!” You will also give him more time as a young man to cope with the aforementioned enormous mental pressures that are coming his way, with more expectations on his debut than any other player in living memory, with the possible exception of Fittler.

And yet, the risks of waiving the rule are not just the possible physical and mental impacts on Suaalii himself. The most obvious one is that if you waive a welfare rule just for the one player and that player gets seriously hurt, the NRL will certainly be morally culpable, and perhaps even legally culpable.

The rule was brought in because the NRL realised its duty of care to young players. If you waive that rule for an outstanding young player, and that player gets badly hurt, are you in breach of your duty of care? In my view, quite possibly.

In sum? In sum, the NRL brought in a very good rule, just six years ago. It is madness on every level to waive it.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

Crisis support can be found at Lifeline: (13 11 14 and lifeline.org.au), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467 and suicidecallbackservice.org.au) and beyondblue (1300 22 4636 and beyondblue.org.au)

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