Joseph Suaalii. The next kid off the perennial talent block. Some want him playing and others do not. Suaalii is just seventeen.
Once upon a time, players were able to debut at a remarkably young age but there is a telling statistic to consider.
Of the five youngest players to play in the top flight since 1908, just one of those players has debuted in the last 20 years.
That being Jordan Rankin, who, at just 16 years and 238 days, made his debut for the Gold Coast Titans in 2008.
Though Rankin was the youngest player to debut in 85 years, he wants the game to block Suaalii’s debut.
In an article by the AAP’s Scott Bailey just last week, Rankin was candid and open about just how wrong things can go for a young debutant in the long-term.
“I’m not worried about him physically at all. He’s quite a physical, kid … It’s the mental side of it. It’s the papers; it’s everything else in between,” Rankin said.
More telling from Rankin is that, looking back, he felt like his early entry into the top flight was a detriment to his game for the next couple of seasons following that.
“If I had my time again and had the chance to say no or someone could have for me, that would have been the best thing for me,” Rankin continued.
“It stunted my career; it took me two, three years to get over.”
Although Suaalii is more likely to come through the NSW Cup ranks – an opportunity Rankin did not have – he still worries about the hype and speculation the media are playing on Suaalii.
“He is already put in a position where he’s meant to be something,” Rankin said.
“And to do that to a kid who hasn’t even played against men is a massive, massive deal.
“I strongly urge anyone who thinks he’s ready to just think about it a little bit more.”
Rankin’s comments are telling in that, although a player may have the ability to perform, is making your debut solely about ability?
Mentally, rugby league is a tough and gruelling sport. The effort, the focus, the attention, the physiology, and so many other factors can often take years to learn.
Already in his career that has not even started, Suaalii has been compared to the likes of Greg Inglis and Kalyn Ponga.
Two players who are naturally gifted and both of whom also had some tough times when they started and even as their careers continue/d to blossom.
The question with Suaalii is; is he being set up to fail before his career even begins?
If he falters even slightly when he comes into first-grade, will his confidence be shot? More importantly, would he have the mental strength to recover?
Of course, there are those who believe if you are good enough, you’re old enough. Though is that the question that should be asked?
In the eyes of many that have been around the game for long periods, they have seen first-hand how things can turn for the worse.
Take Phil Gould as another example. Gould has played, coached, and commentated for the better part of more than 40 years.
He is one person who has been vocal on this topic. In his view, the NRL must avoid tinkering with the rule with age eligibility to protect the players.
“There were a couple of reasons why we’ve got the age limit put at 18 before you can play in the NRL,” Gould said on 100% Footy last year.
“I know he’s an exceptional kid at that age but other kids catch up pretty quickly.
“This kid may well be too, I just think it’s too much, too early. I just don’t like the look of it and I just don’t like the feel of it. You’ve just got to be careful you’re not setting a precedent that’s going to come back and bite us down the track.”
Another player who debuted young and saw first-hand the toll that the rigours of NRL would take on his body is current Cronulla Sharks captain Wade Graham.
Graham debuted at 17 and although it was a dream come true for him, in the time following his debut, his body suffered as a result.
“It was probably too early for me,” Graham said on Sporting News in 2020.
“My body wasn’t quite ready for it and I had shoulder surgery the next season because of the damage the game brought about on my body.”
So although the ability is there and although a player is ‘ready’, if it all goes wrong, the curtain could close very quickly and a player may never recover.
Ultimately, how young is too young? Should the age limit remain as it stands?