From the time these kids came into our junior representative programs, the one thing I would continually stress to them is that they needed a plan B. I was always brutally honest with them about the reality of becoming an NRL footballer at all, let alone becoming a professional footballer earning a wage that might sustain them later in life.
Only a very small percentage of players get to these lofty levels. Even then, for most rugby league professionals, a 10-year career at the highest level will not earn them enough money to sustain them for the rest of their life. It was always important that we encouraged them to consider their future beyond their playing careers and to give them the opportunity to study, train or work outside the game.
I have seen so many young men come into our programs over the years. They come to us from all kinds of backgrounds. Many come from very humble and difficult beginnings, Sadly, for a number of these kids, the school system and the family environment, have failed them. For many of them, being a part of the professional rugby league environment will be the only form of love, friendship, discipline, routine and support they have ever experienced. The rugby league life helps to shape these young men into quality citizens and family men, as well as giving them the tools to enter the workforce as employees or even become businessmen in their own right.
While everyone has been listening to the arguments about pay cuts, my major concern would be ensuring that all these young men still have their medical insurance paid up, and that their tertiary education allowances should continue so their studies, apprenticeships, or work opportunities are not affected.
For many, being a part of the professional environment will be the only form of love, friendship and discipline they have ever experienced.
It’s also vitally important that the club staff who become so close to these players and who are mentors in their own right keep in constant touch with these young men to ensure they are busy, productive and in a positive frame of mind.
I cannot stress strongly enough that the positive and disciplined environment we provide in rugby league academies and junior programs is a vital part of developing the personality and character of these young men. It’s not just about the football. Having been so suddenly removed from their safe haven, I have real concerns about how some of these kids will be coping away from their clubs.
As a game, we created this environment. We can’t just walk away from it. Might I say also that into the future we simply can’t abandon these programs because the NRL competition at the highest level is in a precarious financial position. Our game has obligations. Our priorities need to be set in order. Our responsibilities run deep. The future of the game, but more importantly the future of these young men, depends upon it.
Now, while I have highlighted the situation for our emerging youngsters in the game, I also have genuine concerns for current NRL players. I’m not so worried about their finances, because they will make it up when things get back to normal. I’m more concerned that their medical coverage is continued, that their education programs are supported and that all these young men are receiving constant communication to assist them through this period of great uncertainty.
These players thrive on routine: sleeping habits, diet and nutrition, training habits, mentor programs, leadership and education programs, working in the community with schools, charities and junior league clubs. All these things are looked after and provided by their respective NRL clubs. It gives our players routine and purpose. All this has been lost due the shutdown our country is experiencing.
It is important that these players continue to find routine in their lives while they are isolated at home like the rest of us: keeping the discipline of going to bed at a certain time and rising each morning; adhering to their diet and nutrition requirements; setting themselves training programs and sticking to the schedule. The moment you cut a corner or decide it’s OK to miss one session, or perhaps put it off till later in the day because you don’t feel like it, it will start to erode your discipline and routine.
Emerging players who are still looking to establish themselves as genuine NRL professionals, those who are on lower to mid-tier contracts, those that have financial commitments around rent or mortgages, those with young families or extended families to support, could well be left feeling stressed not only about the current situation, but about what the future might bring.
Our game needs to support these players.
I’m sure the brilliant staff at every one of our NRL clubs will be acutely aware of the issues I have raised here. Despite the fact that many of the football staff themselves may have been stood down without pay and face an unknown future in the game, I’m sure they are out there keeping tabs on isolated players.
In a perfect world, I would hope that the competition can recommence some time in the near future. This would get staff and players back into competition and bring all-important finances into the game to ensure the 16 clubs are still with us when we come out the other side. This would be the best-case scenario.
To be perfectly honest, though, we need to be preparing now for the reality and ramifications this government-enforced lockdown situation will bring to the Australian economy and rugby league.
I suspect we still have a long way to go. I hope that we all come out the other side together. In the meantime, our game and our clubs need to ensure that our out-of-work players and staff are provided with all the emotional and wellbeing support possible.
Phil Gould is a League Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald