League: Grim reality cuts short NRL dreams

By Michael Brown

For every Ruben Wiki and Steve Price who play close to 300 first-grade games, there are countless George Tuakuras and Wayne McDades.

They dream of successful NRL careers and secure contracts that put them on the fringe of achieving that - only to fall short.

For many, it's over before it has even begun and it's a principal reason why the average length of an NRL career is said to be only three years.

Statistics provided by League Information Services show the average career has increased from 57 games in 1990 to 79 in 2006 but that is for players who actually make it to the NRL at some stage.

McDade, who was on the Warriors' books in 2007, is still trying his luck with the Auckland Vulcans but the best Tuakura achieved was being 18th man toward the end of his two years with the Warriors.

The money might seem attractive at the top end - some are on $450,000 - but the minimum is only $57,000 for a top-25 player, not something that will set anyone up for immediate retirement.

Factor in those youngsters or fringe players on between $20,000 and $40,000 and it's an uncertain existence.

"I don't think it takes long for young players to find out how competitive it is," Warriors chief executive Wayne Scurrah says. "Some find their level, some fight hard and progress while others bide their time.

"Clubs and the NRL are more genuine now in making players aware that even if you do play first grade, you might not earn a lot of money.

"A lot of the young boys coming through the New Zealand system come through on natural athleticism and size. They just run over kids in age-group competition. When they get to the NRL, they come up against more intelligent players and it takes a little more than brawn and muscle. They need total dedication and commitment to training."

They also need a bit of luck.

Benji Marshall is often used as an example of how cruel that can be. The 23-year-old was heralded as one of the stars of the game after helping his Wests Tigers to the 2005 NRL title. He's since played only 26 games as his brittle shoulders and knees succumb to all-too frequent problems.

Since making his debut as a precocious 18-year-old in 2003, Marshall has played only a further 63 NRL games. The Warriors' Micheal Luck has played 58 consecutive matches since joining the club in 2006.

The Warriors have been hit hard by injuries this season.

In 2007, they had a relatively good run but in only eight rounds this season they have been without Wade McKinnon (knee), Steve Price (hamstring), Jerome Ropati (hamstring), Manu Vatuvei (fractured leg), Ruben Wiki (wrist), Patrick Ah Van (neck), Sonny Fai (shoulder), Aidan Kirk (hamstring) and Herman Retzlaff (hand). For their recent match against Canberra, they had only 16 of their top 25 players available.

"We have done a lot of soul searching and analysis about our injuries this year," team doctor John Mayhew said. "It is our worst run for a while but it is a game where attrition is going to be a problem.

"It's an incredibly physical sport and we would average one significant injury per game that would mean someone missing a week or two of football during the season."

Mayhew explained there was usually an early-season peak, when players got used to the rigours of matches again, and another toward the end as niggles took their toll.

"We are getting better at diagnosing and treating injuries so that players who most probably had career-threatening injuries in the past are now returning to the field," he says.

"Fifteen years ago, a Michael Jones-type injury would have meant packing up their bags and taking up tiddlywinks."

While rotation and reconditioning are dirty words in rugby union, they are concepts loosely adopted in rugby league.

The Warriors use a system whereby a player's loading during training and playing is calculated over a six-week period and, if it gets into extreme areas, they are rested.

"The concept of rotation is a good one but an intelligent coach does that anyway," Mayhew says.

"In rugby they took groups of players out for long periods. To me, that was a nonsense because some thrive on a high work rate.

"In rugby league some older players can't take 26 games in a row but Micheal Luck and Simon Mannering can. You need to monitor players, have self-reporting, a scoring system and blood tests. Then you make a decision and see whether a player needs a break.

"It's done on an individual basis rather than with groups. What rugby did was very crude and they perhaps paid for it in the end."

While some players' careers can be prolonged with modern medicine, some still don't get that chance. It's why clubs are trying to impress on their players the importance of education and skills outside rugby league.

The Toyota Cup under-20 competition has strict regulations in place to emphasise that. There must be three weekdays clear of training for players to either work, study or learn a trade, all of which is audited by the NRL.

It is something of a throwback to the days when Wiki emerged on the scene in 1993 with Canberra.

Like most clubs, they trained in the early evenings, meaning players were required to work during the day. Wiki worked for a tiling company, putting orders together and dropping them off at sites around town.

Players became fulltime when the big money was being thrown around during the Super League war a couple of years later.

Wiki, who is now training with his wife to become a personal trainer, tries to educate youngsters on the need to have something outside rugby league but recognises he's not the best example because of the longevity of his career.

"Now it's really important for the kids coming through to have studies or a trade on the side to have something to fall back on," he says. "Some take it for granted. They have some money in their back pocket and think they have made it. But it's hard."

Ropati is one player who is unlikely to follow Wiki into the 300-club. The 23-year-old was to line up for his 73rd appearance today but the past two years have been wrecked by a series of injuries.

It has given him a greater appreciation of what he has, and also what he risks losing if he can't overcome his injuries.

"One of the first stats I knew when I came in [to the Warriors] was that the average NRL career was about three years," he says.

"I haven't taken it for granted. Maybe I did in 2005 and 2006 when I had my best years and played all those games. This period now has brought it back to my mind that I'm actually quite fortunate to still be here.

"Most guys take it for granted, which is dangerous. Most guys whose careers ended early in the past haven't come out with a plan at the end of it. People could have an injury like Andrew Johns [who retired because of an neck injury] early in their career. I have heard young guys who have done that. Maybe players don't appreciate it as much as they should."

Maybe fans who see the big dollars being talked about at the top level don't either.

- Herald on Sunday

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