New Zealand moves to protect its young talent
The New Zealand Rugby League is setting up academies to stop a trans-Tasman drain of young players, who head to the lucky country with high hopes and can end up adrift. Sarah Harvey reports.
It's the loneliness that hits first. Then the homesickness, and the culture shock.
Young men with bodies of fully grown adults struggling to survive in the often cut-throat world of professional rugby league.
Teenagers as young as 15 from big families and supportive communities adjusting to life, alone, in a new city and new country, often with the expectations of a club and a community behind them.
Up to 700 teenage league players leave New Zealand for Australia each year.
Some go because their entire family wants to settle in the "lucky country". Others are lured by player agents or picked up as development players by NRL clubs.
About one per cent will make it into the NRL, the rest will return home with their tail between their legs, or be lost to rugby league forever.
A few, like Gisborne-born Wests Tigers player Mosese Fotuaika, will find it all too much.
Fotuaika was 20 and playing for the Wests Tigers when he suffered a possibly season-ending injury in training. He went home and took his own life. He was found by his pregnant girlfriend, with whom he shared a house.
His is not the only tragedy. Just a couple of months later, 20-year-old New Zealand-born Cowboys player Alex Elisala died after a fall from a balcony. His family turned off his life support a day later.
This, the New Zealand Rugby League's (NZRL) Tony Iro says, has to stop.
Iro is a familiar face in league. He is the NZRL's general manager of high performance but before that he was an NRL player, a Kiwis player and a coach and administrator in both areas.
He knows league families and league communities and knows all too well the problems with the drain of players from this to the other side of the Tasman.
"The biggest issue we have got here with our youth is the pull of the NRL clubs over to Australia.
"It reduces our playing numbers and pulls talent away from our local game but also there's obviously welfare issues that the Australians are experiencing with our kids.
"They have all got aspirations to be NRL players but 99 per cent of them won't be.
"The saddest thing is when whole families uplift and then after two or three years . . . the parents have both left their jobs and brought younger children out of school, on the hope of the eldest son making the NRL. Then he gets cut, it can be devastating for all of them.
"It's either they come back home with their tail between their legs, having had a bad experience or they stay in Australia, either way they are lost to our game forever, anyway."
Iro has come up with a plan to stop these problems by introducing academies that will keep players in New Zealand.
The idea, he says, is to set up four academies - one in Christchurch, one in Wellington and two in Auckland - to replicate the Australian development system and give teenagers an experience of a professional sporting environment but, crucially, while they are still at home.
The academies will start this November and will run over the summer. The 50 players chosen in each academy will train four or five times a week, in the evenings. Players will have to pay for the privilege.
They will work towards a series of inter-academy games at the end of the summer before a New Zealand youth team is selected.
"Some parents have already riled against the idea of it being five days a week. Well, we say, if you send them to Australia now, that is what your kid is expected to do and he will be doing it in a new house, in a new country, in new temperatures with a really ultra competitive group of people."
The plan, Iro says, is to develop good Kiwi players and then pass them on to the NRL, if they are good enough.
The main driving force is to provide a better support system to young players and keep them with their families.
It would be, he says, a chance for teenagers to dip their toes in the waters of professional league.
"The biggest reason, though, is for our kids to be at home with their parents, with their families. That is the biggest thing."
Iro said the drain of younger players began with the genesis of the under-20 competition in 2008. There had been a "real shift in terms of the development mentality of the NRL clubs and the kids are getting younger and younger".
"They are pulling 14- and 15-year-olds."
Iro says the NZRL would prefer those teenagers stayed and got an education as well as developing their game.
"It will give them a better chance of becoming a more complete person. If they are going overseas to a new country, if they are living with a new family, they are in really tough training conditions and competitive training environments - it's really tough. Then they are asked to perform on the field.
"Some of those kids, at 15 or 16, just aren't ready for it."
Carmen Taplin knows all about this.
Taplin was the NZRL's administration manager and the Kiwis team manager for 10 tours. The Kiwi players call her ‘Aunty'. She and her husband, Spencer, are now house parents at Roosters' house in Sydney, looking after 17- to 19-year-old development players, including, at present, three New Zealand players.
Taplin says it is hard for an NRL club to keep on top of the welfare issues of every single player.
"How does a club notice that there is something not quite right with these boys? How do they actually care for these kids?"
Taplin said the teenagers are given support and help from NRL welfare officers, who tell them "if you have any issues, let us know".
"They are not going to let them know," Taplin says.
"They just carry stuff and carry stuff and that's when they fall off the wagon or they turn around and come home or the extreme, they take their own lives.
"I think some of these kids get painted a really beautiful picture, but they need to be told the honest truth. I sit there and I talk to the boys, I pick up on things the coaching staff probably don't even think about."
Iro says the NRL wants players that are well rounded and disciplined.
"We want to give them the opportunity to say, you stay here until you are 18, you have gone through the system that will prepare you exactly the same as the NRL then, when you get there, you might have a better chance of making it."