Kent: Bunnies, Wallabies toy with star teen’s welfare
Joseph Suaalii was called David Fifita several years back. A year or two earlier, Joseph Suaalii was Payne Haas.
Before then he was Kalyn Ponga.
The game is littered with Joseph Suaaliis. Israel Folau, Karmichael Hunt, they were all supreme young talents, a Joseph Suaalii, good enough to play NRL at 17.
Some did and some didn't, those that didn't were held back by a relatively recent rule banning players from playing NRL until their 18th birthday in a bid to protect their futures.
But protection doesn't mean much, anymore.
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Rabbitohs' coach Wayne Bennett came out last week accusing the media of heaping so much pressure on the young footballer, which rings pretty hollow in light of the facts.
Rugby Australia has slaughtered any chance of protection, which is the reality of professional sport and something Bennett understands.
Suaalii was announced as a Rabbitohs signing last month and Rugby Australia didn't like it much, given Suaalii is in Year 11 at a rugby school, and had knocked back a chance to play for the Wallabies, and so Rugby Australia came in with a massive three-year $3 million deal to snatch Suaalii from the Rabbitohs.
Oh, they felt chuffed when they tabled that one.
Play for the Wallabies, travel the world. Maybe he didn't like playing in Campbelltown, Tim Horan chortled.
Or maybe he wanted to play a game that those in the country he actually lives in care about?
Six of one …
Rugby Australia bosses rope-a-doped themselves. They went too hard too early and left enough time for Rabbitohs' owner Russell Crowe to fly him up the north coast and flex his Hollywood muscles and, for all we know now, Suaalii might end up as one of the Merry Men in Robin Hood II.
But will the Rabbitohs get their man?
ARL Commission chairman Peter V'landys will propose an exemption to the Commission to alter the rule banning players under 18 from playing in the NRL.
V'Landys has suffered a small backlash about his proposal, as if he might be doing favours, but he argues the game must be agile, that good governance is flexibility, and that he still might get voted down when the Commission considers it, anyway.
There is still plenty of wriggle room, though.
Suaalii is contracted to Souths on a NSW Cup contract and, in theory, could wake up to his 17th birthday on Saturday with NRL contracts not only from Souths but Wests Tigers, Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm, and probably a light bid from Rugby Australia, and any other clubs that cares to table an offer.
Other clubs have already shown interest. The Storm had him at an indoor cricket game during grand final week in 2018. Tigers coach Michael Maguire has been a fan for years.
The big winners, though, will be the managers.
If the exemption is passed, managers, who are quicker to adapt than anybody, will have every young talent signed to come off a junior contract at 17 and an offer from the Wallabies waiting to go the week before.
Precedent, they'll argue, and quite rightly at that.
The original intention of the rule, to save the player from being exposed too early to the violence of NRL football, is running second to enticing Suaalii before he heads to rugby.
Rugby is making the same sacrifice, the offers to play for the Waratahs and Wallabies sure to take him from school even as he strives to complete Year 11.
The Rabbitohs quietly returned to Suaalii's family after the rugby offer and tabled a new deal, this one with a promise to seek an exemption and have Suaalii start in the NRL next season.
They also presented how they managed to guide Campbell Graham through the final years of his schooling as an example of how they plan to care for him.
The rule might have been introduced under good intentions but it is being driven entirely by commercial reality.
Right to the very end.
Part of Souths' agreement was they would keep new details quiet and not play it out in the media.
Soon after, Bennett, on cue, turned the attention on the media itself in a bid to quieten the noise.
It was an old ploy that used to work, from a time when coaches used to say if you're good enough you're old enough.
Originally published as Kent: Bunnies, Wallabies toy with star teen's welfare