“But Joseph had it all. He read the game. And he had the skills. He’ll have no problems making it in the NRL before he turns 18.”
Fittler was happy for Suaalii to be given the green light to play in the NRL before his 18th birthday, and for League HQ to review each case on its merits.
Newcastle’s Bradman Best is another youngster Fittler is convinced could have survived the physical and mental challenges that come with being thrust into the big leagues before his 18th birthday.
Fittler debuted for Penrith when he was 17 and can still remember his first reserve-grade game against Manly. Sea Eagles forward John Jones grabbed him by the throat and nearly decked him. He had to mark up on Kiwi international Joe Ropati.
Suaalii has a whopping $2m four-year deal on the table from South Sydney and can put pen to paper on Saturday when he turns 17. Fittler merely hopes he pursues the codes he loves the most – not the one that pays the best.
“Playing the code that pays the most dollars is very dangerous,” Fittler said. “I just hope he plays the game he really wants to play. To put a 16-year-old in the newspaper and talking about all this money, it’s a bad look. Nobody wins. I understand it’s a big story. The biggest story right now is about a 16-year-old who has never played the game. I’m not sure what that says about our game.”
Fittler only spoke with Suaalii once at Bankwest Stadium before a game. He recalled Suaalii ditched a junior NSW Origin game in favour of schoolboys rugby last year, which Cameron Murray had also done while attending Newington College. The thing that stood out for Fittler was Suaalii’s maturity.
Being at a club like Souths and having Wayne Bennett mentoring him would also work in Suaalii’s favour, said Fittler.
Cronulla skipper Wade Graham debuted at 17 and said the wear and tear made it tough on any kid, regardless of their size and ability.
“The majority of kids that age are probably not physically mature enough yet,” Graham said. “[But] there’s always an exception to the rule. Look at guys like Israel Folau and Greg Inglis coming through as teenagers and dominating – it’s hard to deny someone if they’re physically ready.
Penrith ace Nathan Cleary, who has played 88 NRL games and is just 22, said: “I don’t think it’s the footy that is the real worry, it’s more the off-field stuff. That’s the biggest lesson I have learnt – the increased scrutiny from the media which is the hard part.”
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Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.