NRL: The mother hen caring for her young chooks

By David Skipwith

Spencer and Carmen Taplin (middle) surrounded in their Sydney home by the New Zealand Roosters contingent (from left) Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Joseph Manu, Reuben Porter, Arthur Currie, Isaac Crichton, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Chevi Ellis.
Spencer and Carmen Taplin (middle) surrounded in their Sydney home by the New Zealand Roosters contingent (from left) Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Joseph Manu, Reuben Porter, Arthur Currie, Isaac Crichton, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Chevi Ellis.

The tragic suicides last year of young Wests Tigers and North Queensland Cowboys players Mosese Fotuaika and Alex Elisala rocked a lot of people in rugby league and prompted Spencer and Carmen Taplin to try do something about it.

"I said to my husband, there has to be a gap in the welfare side of things for these kids if that's happening," Carmen says. "And so I sent an email to every club in Sydney saying, 'my husband and I have a great rapport with kids and we'd be interested in a house-parent role if anything like that was happening'."

After several months of talks, the Roosters established a house last November to welcome an influx of new recruits due to arrive over the rugby league off-season. The Taplins moved to Sydney with their young daughter, leaving behind their teenage son who boards at Auckland Grammar, to set up their new home.

Player welfare has become an important part of rugby league as there's more of an accent on the individual.

The Roosters saw the value in this to help the club's next crop of NRL players settle in to life in Sydney.

The formerly Auckland-based couple have taken on the role of house parents, looking after seven of the youngest Roosters recruits, as they adjust to life away from home, while also teaching them life skills to help them navigate the early stages of their promising professional league careers.

"Both Carmen and Spencer act like extended parents to the boys," Roosters chief operating officer Brian Canavan says.

"They're at the very tender age, around 17-18. When they relocate from interstate and from countries such as New Zealand, that care factor is extremely important.

"There's an incredibly high care factor in Carmen and she takes the boys as if they're her own family, which is exactly what we want in a football club."

Having previously worked in various administrative roles at Auckland club level and with the New Zealand Rugby League, Carmen took on a caretaker role with the Kiwis for the 2010 Anzac test and was asked to help out for the next three years.

She quickly won the respect of the players and staff due to her caring and sensitive nature, strong organisational ability and attention to detail.

"It was like a caretaker role but in the sense of their well-being, not so much their football athleticism. It was about how they are as a person," Carmen explains.

"Family is so important to all of these boys, regardless of whether they're at grass roots or elite level. It wasn't long into the role that the boys started calling me Aunty.

"We have empathy with the mums and dads when they're letting their sons go to come and live with us. We say to them, 'we're in the same boat', and that helps."

The boys have cooking and cleaning chores on top of their study or work commitments, and cultural education is a constant in the house, as the mix of Maori, Polynesian, Aboriginal and white Australian housemates learn to live with one another.

"It's been a huge cultural learning for us and we try to ask all the boys to tell us some things that are sacred to them. And then they share things with us.

"We've been very blessed to have a very good group of boys, and they've made the transition of moving over pretty easy."

The house environment has seen the boys forge strong bonds which have translated to on-field success, with several housemates featuring in the club's championship-winning under-18 SG Ball side.

The Roosters have recognised the role played by the Taplins and what started as volunteer work has since evolved into paid roles for the pair.

"They've become all-but indispensable in our club in a very short space of time," Canavan says.

"It's ended up a communal venue for our senior players to drop in, socialise and also talk a bit of shop and it's benefited the whole club enormously. We couldn't have hoped for a better outcome."

Now Carmen wants other NRL clubs to take notice.

"Actions speak louder than words and hopefully they'll look at what's going on in our house and see the success of it all."

- Herald on Sunday

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