R M Cullen
MD MSc MFM BA DipStats DipProfEthics
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and family in 2013
As the NZ Warriors rugby league team follows another disappointing season with another review, one which it has been flagged will find the players at fault - too inexperienced, some not capable of making the step to first grade, poor attitude, poor values, poor culture, maybe it's time for a different point of view. The problem at the Warriors is poor player management, always has been.
From the stands, where I sit, Kevin Locke is a fine example of the failure of the Warriors to covert outrageous teenage talent into a long professional career. I don't know Kevin, have never talked to him. I first saw him as a 16 year old in a Northcote vs Papakura club game at Mt Smart number two when he absolutely carved a good club side.
Locke was born in 1989. His parents divorced in 2004. Within a year he had moved out of his mother's home and was taken in by his coach (Frank Harold) and his wife.
In 2006 he played for the junior Kiwis
In 2007 he played for the Auckland Lions in the New South Wales Cup
In 2008 he played under 20s for the Warriors, and was the competition's second highest points scorer. He played for NZ Maori against the NZ Kiwis. His father died of motor neurone disease.
In 2009 he made his first grade debut, and was the club's top points scorer.
In 2011 he played for the NZ Kiwis, and for the Warriors in the NRL grand final.
In 2012 he was fined $1400 and sentenced to 80 hours community work for driving while disqualified. The club also fined him a further $5,000.
In 2013 he played for the NZ Kiwis in the World Cup. He was linked to the 'sleeping pills plus energy drinks' alternative taken by some players when they weren't allowed out at night. That year the Warriors signed Sam Tomkins from the UK as their fullback, effectively relegating Locke to reserve grade for 2014. Tomkins was a disappointment in the NRL.
In 2014 and for part of 2015 Locke played for the Salford Red Devils in the UK. He quit the club in June 2015.
For the latter part of 2015 Locke played for the Wakefield Wildcats in the UK.He was released in September after a murky incident involving alcohol, and crashing the coach's car.
Earlier this year Tony Iro said ""Kevin has always had plenty of talent and is naturally fit. But that has also been his biggest downfall. The sky was always the limit if he could knuckle down. But he hasn't really applied himself like he could have. He has trained hard - I've seen it - but perhaps didn't realise that this is a 24-hour job. If you don't fully commit, you don't last."
And there is the problem. Not Tony Iro. He's a product, not a cause. But having been at the Warriors for most of Locke's time there, he is back again in 2016 taking on the recruitment and player development role. The probem is the club's failure to take responsibility for player development.
Kevin Locke is a top bloke. He's immensely loyal to his mates, very funny, and doesn't forget his friends. He's the kind of young man that rugby league prides itself on attracting. If his talents had been more modest, and he'd become a tradie playing club footie, his laddish aspects would be smiled over, covered up, and indulged. He likes a drink, and when he has a drink things sometimes go a bit wrong. Speeding tickets, maybe a fight or two, a bit too friendly with girls who aren't his partner. There are lots of Kevin Locke stories. Some might be true. None are unusual.
So why has he gone from outrageously talented schoolboy to an athlete with a reputation for inconsistency on the field, high maintenance even defiant behaviours within the club, and unacceptable off field behaviour?
The problem occurs in that interval when a player is 18-22. At this time they should be treated by professional clubs in the same way as young executives fresh out of university would in any other business. These fellows aren't fresh out of university. Their basic qualification is their talent. The club should recognize the common areas not covered by talent (or a first degree) and fill those in.
There are a number of approaches. One is PASTE - Physical, Attitude, Skills, Tactics, Environment.
Physically, these young men start with a strong base. But rugby league is a sport which rewards players who are bigger, faster, stronger, fitter, and more agile. Professional league clubs are good in this area.
Attitude is not a one size fits all attribute. Although there are commonalities in the outcomes sought by a club, a significant level of kowledge about the individuals is required. Each young man's path to the end point may be different. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that a strong individual who has rejected authority for most of his life, like Kevin Locke, has to buy into this. He won't be forced.
There are surprising skill deficits in a number of talented players. Unfortunately, professional clubs sometimes are no good at, or don't see it as their role to, improve the individual skills of players with a deficit. It can be easier to recruit another piece of meat.
Young players do not understand the game. Knowledge and structure are partial substitutes for experience.
Awareness of a player's external environment is a two way street. The club must make an effort to understand the young player in the context of his life away from the training ground. The player must come to understand that the professional environment is something quite different from a local club or school environment. Winning is necessary, as is good press and keeping the sponsors happy. Too often clubs intervene only when problems arise. They do not do enough to prevent problems occuring.
In summary then, the schoomasterly approach that Jim Doyle and McFadden seem set to go down - these are the rules, follow them or be punished - may work for half a season, but no longer. A better long term approach is to view young talent in the same way as a large company views executive recruitment and development.