What’s becoming clearer by the day is that Souths are prepared to sell the farm, both morally and financially, to get their man. Sorry, teenager.
We’ll deal with the club’s enormous revised offer of $2 million over four years in a moment.
What’s more concerning is the hypocrisy of the club in trying to lower the age limit that would allow Suaalii to play NRL next year when he is still 17.
“The publicity he has got in the last three or four days is not what I want for my 16-year-old,” Souths coach Wayne Bennett said last Friday. “We still don’t know how good he is going to be, and all of a sudden he has this huge burden of expectation placed upon him. It’s just not healthy for anyone that’s in that situation.”
Bennett might want to look in his own backyard first because here was Souths, just days later, asking ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys to bend the age limit to suit their needs.
A brief history lesson for those playing at home …
Rugby league folklore is steeped in tales of brilliant young players making their first-grade debut while still at school.
Perhaps the most well-known is Brad Fittler — resplendent with flat-top haircut and devastating left-foot step — playing in a grand final for Penrith before heading off on the 1990 Kangaroos tour of England.
By 2008, things were changing. So was the game. So were body shapes. The old line about being old enough if you were good enough no longer applied.
When Jordan Rankin made his debut for the Gold Coast at the age of 16 years 238 days, the NRL raised the age limit to 18.
The driving force behind the change was former salary cap auditor Ian Schubert, who had made his debut for Jack Gibson’s Eastern Suburbs in 1975 while also at school.
Five years ago, Shane Richardson wanted to prevent players from making their NRL debut until the year in which they turned 19. This wasn’t about holding young players back – but saving lives. A spate of youth suicides in the code had forced him to act.
Five years ago, Shane Richardson wanted to take it further. Richardson had left Souths, where he had been chief executive, and was the NRL’s head of game development.
He briefed the commission about preventing players from making their NRL debut until the year in which they turned 19.
There was urgency in the big man’s voice. This wasn’t about holding young players back – but saving lives. A spate of youth suicides in the code had forced him to act.
“We did a detailed study of those kids and what happened to them,” Richardson said at the time. “We had a long look working with people at the NRL about what it’s done to families or otherwise. I’ve got to say it didn’t have as big an impact on me in the beginning as what it did in the end.
“When you go to New Zealand, and you talk to the NZRL and you talk to the districts about some of the tragedies of what’s happened for them, for every story where a kid’s got their [dream] start, there’s 10 stories that aren’t anywhere near as nice as that one.”
The commission didn’t heed Richardson’s advice and kept the age limit at 18. It did, however, agree to his recommendation of preventing players from having managers and signing professional contracts until they are 17.
The rule is designed to stop player agents trawling junior carnivals all over the country, enticing families into deals, promising them the world, the NRL, the dream life, all while ready to discard them should the kid prove nothing more than a plodder.
There’s nothing wrong with being a plodder, of course. It’s just that 6.5 per cent of nothing is nothing.
The rule is bypassed by having “family friends” and “advisers” doing the deal in advance.
It’s tricky to work out exactly who is advising the Suaalii family right now, although Nasteski is at the heart of it.
Rugby Australia is convinced the story about it offering Suaalii $3m over three years came out of Souths. The Rabbitohs say that’s rubbish. We’ll have to take their word for it.
But if that’s not the case, they’ve fallen for whatever Nasteski, or whoever is advising Suaalii, fed them.
Souths had been prepared to throw about $200,000 a year at him over three years. Then it went to $500,000 a year over three. Then it went to $500,000 over four.
That’s well north of Rugby Australia’s real offer: $350,000 over 18 months, with possible Olympics selection.
Suaalii is expected to sign with Souths on Saturday, when he turns 17.
Last week, Solly denied to the Herald that he was at Crowe’s farm with the Suaalii family.
“Sorry to be a pain mate but not discussing Suaalii,” he texted when asked one last time to clarify his position. “We’re happy to give the family and Joseph space to make a decision.”
We’ll have to take his word for it.
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Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.