This article was first written for and published by the Roar.
On Monday, the NRL announced that the Roosters have been granted special dispensation to allow 17-year-old Joseph Suaalii to play in their first-grade team, despite the existing rule in place that requires players to turn 18 before they are eligible.
On Tuesday, NRL CEO Andrew Abdo made a comment that such an exemption would be “very rare”.
I have no doubt that those charged with making the decision about Suaalii’s inclusion did their due diligence; in fact, my understanding is that Suaalii has been observed over a long period of time.
He has been benchmarked physically against what is considered ‘average’ for an outside back in the NRL by an independent, high-performance specialist, and has undergone a psychological evaluation.
But it is still unclear why an exemption was made and if the NRL is willing to consider ‘special cases’, then why bother having the rule at all?
The rule is clear: a player must turn 18 before being allowed to play first grade. If the NRL is interested in making limited exemptions, then change the rule.
Over the summer we saw many rule-changes brought in, with many questioning the process behind their introduction. It’s clear that decisions can be made quickly, so why not allow some flexibility with this rule if the NRL want to go down this path?
My understanding is that a similar rule exists in the Super League. A player must be aged 18 years of age before playing, but there is some flexibility to consider edge cases.
The rule in the NRL does not give the governing body such flexibility, which means that there is a lack of transparency around the process.
It is unclear as to why an exemption was made for Suaalii and in what circumstances an exemption could be made in the future.
Is it because he is talented? Is it because there is a fear he could return to rugby union? Neither of those are player-centric reasons and while I don’t doubt that utmost care was taken by the professionals evaluating Suaalii, being held to ransom by another sport is not a good enough reason to allow a young teenager to play one of the most physically demanding games in the world.
Newcastle Knights fans may be cranky with this decision, with Bradman Best being required to wait until he was 18 before playing.
Why wasn’t Best given the same opportunity to undergo stringent evaluation? Was it because there wasn’t enough interest from rugby union?
I also have concerns about this decision from a duty of care perspective. Again, while I am sure that the people charged with evaluating Suaalii have done so with the utmost care and professionalism, there is a reason this rule exists.
I know that age is just a number and that players develop differently. A couple of months may not make a difference for Suaalii, but potentially they do.
Rugby league is a tough, physical, contact sport. Why take the risk for the sake of a couple of months?
It’s been said that Suaalii is unlikely to be selected this weekend, so if there is not any immediate need for him in the team, why make the decision when he will be eligible in a couple of months?
We’ve seen the demands of the game. For the Roosters alone, Boyd Cordner is no doubt towards the end of his career and will miss half the season due to concussion. Similarly, after a head knock on the weekend, Jake Friend may consider his playing future.
Why risk a teenager? Not only physically, but mentally too.
I have not heard one good reason for this decision being made. Worried about his returning to rugby? That doesn’t worry me at all. The NRL is full of explosive and incredible talent, with many teenagers waiting for their opportunity.
To make it clear, this article has nothing to do with Suaalii. I genuinely wish him all the best for his career. I hope he is hugely successful and he stays with rugby league.
He did not make this decision and at his age, he is probably focused on playing sport at an elite level.
But my focus is on making sure that players are given the best opportunity to succeed and to have long and fruitful careers. I’m not sure that this decision accords with that line of thinking.