R M Cullen
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Every year there is a dramatic migration of junior rugby league talent from New Zealand to Australia. Sometimes the kid goes because the family is emigrating for other reasons. Often, the shift reflects a disenchantment with rugby league development pathways, particularly in Auckland.
To put the figures in some sort of context. I can recall four Papakura teenagers in the last decade whose families moved to Australia in order to advance their boy's league careers. They are the young men in the photos - Wayne Ulugia, Henare Wells, Taane Milne and Jason Taumalolo. All four played for Australian schoolboys. I don't know about last century, but this century the Papakura Sea Eagles have produced more members of Australian schoolboy teams than members of the equivalent New Zealand teams (the U18s). Henare's younger brother Dallas, who made the move back to Australia with the family, is in the Cronulla Sharks' first grade squad for 2016.
A 2014 study, reported by Phil Gould showed that 17% of (72 out of 417) NRL players in 2014 had first played their junior footie in New Zealand. Seventy-two players is nearly enough for three NRL teams. The one NZ team, the Warriors, can not take all the NRL level talent produced here, predominantly in Auckland.
The Warriors are not particularly good at identifying talent, if 'talent' is given some meaningful description such as "likely to play more than ten NRL first grade games". There is a lot of mud among the diamonds in the Warriors development group. And a lot of diamonds are not identified. It's always been that way with that club.
NZ parents face three scenarios.
A. They believe their son is good enough to play rugby league at the highest level, State of Origin. Then there is no choice. The boy must move to Australia before age thirteen and continue to live there. This was a change sought by the New Zealand Rugby League.
B. They are approached by an Australian club. This is a nice problem to have. Wayne Ulugia and Jason Taumalolo were both in this category. The short answer is, if the whole family can move, yes.
If the offer includes a place at a 'league' high school as a boarder, and your boy is keen to go, then take the opportunity. However, boarding school in a foreign land is not for everyone and homesickness can be soul destroying.
If the offer is for the boy alone, think about it, then unless it is for a place in the Under 20 team or limited to the duration of the SG Ball competition, and there are close friends or family able to provide accommodation, decline.
The key thing for parents to bear in mind is that clubs don't give a shit about 17 or 18 year olds. Rugby league clubs are not baby-sitters. They have junior teams to fill, and an offer of a place may just be a lazy development officer's way of ensuring no other club can sign your boy. Given the high suicide rate in elite junior rugby league players, parents must ensure that their boy's survival is a priority. If the club is just going to dump your son in some communal housing or flatting environment and leave him to it as long as he gets to training, there is a high risk, around 2% that he will self-harm or kill himself before age 25.
C. The parents believe their son has the goods to play NRL first grade but this has not been recognized in New Zealand.
This is by far the most common scenario confronting parents. Henare (and Dallas) Wells and Taane Milne are examples of players whose parents saw, at age 12 or so, a playing potential in their sons that was not apparent to either their club coaches or to the Auckland selectors.
New Zealand Rugby League figures indicate that in 2014, 853 league players aged 15-18 moved to play in Australia. Only 60 or so went to NRL clubs. 853 equates to around 15% of players in that age group.
In a number of these cases, the boy moved because the family moved. In others, the perception of greater opportunities for their son's sporting career may have been an influential factor in the family's decision to move. In some/most, the perception of greater sporting opportunities in Australia may have been the decisive factor in a family's decision to emigrate. Then there are the young men who are sent to live with relations in Australia in order to pursue their dream of a professional sporting career.
The sad truth is that few parents whose son does not make a rep team believe that Auckland and Counties-Manukau under 15 and under 17 teams are selected by competent, disinterested officials. Nobody is ever going to do the work, but it would be interesting to compare the members of, say, the 2011 Auckland and Counties-Manukau under 15 teams who were not playing in the NRL under 20 competition this year, with boys from the region not selected in those teams who did make the grade. These are all examples of selection failures.
Worse, far worse, is the complete lack of any player development framework in the Auckland, or any other, region. For example, there is no assessment, at, say, under 13 level when boys start to play international rules, of whether a player has a full set of basic skills.
Parents have no objective information on which to base their assessment of how good their boy might be in five years if he were to play in a good team with a good coach. This leads to parental assessments which are wrong more often that they are right.
However, there are two simple things a parent can do before moving to Australia. They can ensure that their boy is playing for a first division club and that he is attending a rugby league school. In Auckland that means enrolling at Kelston Boys, Mt Albert Grammar, or St Pauls. Even Otahuhu College if academic achievement is not important. The associated clubs are Mt Albert, Pt Chev, Marist, Glenora, and Mangere East. If you think your boy is good enough to make it in Australia, be sure he can make the best team at a decent school and at a club that wins championships.