The NRL's decision to axe their under-20s competition will not only spare teenage talents of the limelight but might even save their lives, according to former bad boy Sione Faumuina.
ARL Commission chairman John Grant confirmed that next year's Holden Cup will be its last as the NRL's second-tier competition, replaced by the NSW and Queensland state leagues.
It's a move Faumuina believes will lessen the pressure and spotlight surrounding the game's upcoming stars, some of whom have committed suicide in recent years. The former New Zealand prodigy recalled in his recent book 'The Second Phase' how he threw away all his earning potential after being lured by a toxic mix of limelight and alcohol.
"My last year at North Queensland in 2008 was the first year of the 20s and what I found back then, and it still happens today, a lot of these young boys have the sense that they've made it when in actual fact they haven't made anything," he said.
Faumuina, 35, is attempting a fairytale comeback in the Queensland Cup. He balances his time coaching local teenagers in Brisbane, warning them of the pitfalls of the NRL.
"I tell them straight up, the under 20s is a third-tier, not second tier. I say the second tier is the state league, so their goal shouldn't be to play under 20s. The goal should be to play state cup," he said.
"And they get really upset. A lot of kids get disappointed when they don't go on and play NRL.
"That's where I think the NRL have identified, we've pulled these kids in too early. We've exposed them to too much, too early. Once the under 20s came in, they started targeting them around 12-13."
Faumuina remains close with former teammate Nigel Vagana, who has been at the forefront of the welfare work across the NRL for the past seven years. He says the game is doing more than it ever has before in looking after its own.
"I know that they have a lot of emphasis on wellbeing and education now as opposed to 10 years ago. The systems they have in place, they're actually world recognised," Faumuina said.
"You don't hear about that stuff in the media." However he reckons removing the glory of the under-20s competition and giving reserve grade more acclaim is just as critical in helping shift kids' attitude to their prospective careers.
Another key benefit is pitting the most prodigious talents in the game under the wings of the more mature men in both the NSW and Queensland Cups. "The standout kid that lives in Central Queensland or Sydney, whichever state league is in line with where they stay, they don't have to leave," Faumuina said.
"This is the whole point behind it. They don't need to leave the comfort of their families, their friends, and they will be able to see pathway through to the NRL through the state league."
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