Sport | NRL

Teenage talent wars: How the NRL is poaching Kiwi school boys

Photo / NZME

This article was first published by the NZ Herald.

  • The moral implications of signing teenagers to professional sports contracts is raising concerns among rugby union stakeholders.
  • NRL clubs can sign players from age 15, creating a competitive environment for young prospects.
  • Parents and coaches report a strong presence of NRL scouts at national under-15 tournaments, with minimal visibility from Super Rugby teams.
  • There are calls for a unified strategy in rugby union to counter the NRL’s effective talent acquisition.

Blues chief executive Andrew Hore calls it the perfect storm.

Glamour NRL clubs are increasingly swooping on talented schoolboy rugby talent from 15 years old to shine a spotlight on rugby union’s fractured pathways, and the financial disparity between the codes and raise the moral question of targeting impressionable teenagers.

In a wide-ranging investigation, after speaking with school coaches, parents and player agents, the Herald has uncovered at least seven players from under 15s school teams in Auckland who have signed with NRL clubs and relocated to Australia.

Five leading players from last year’s Auckland Grammar under-15s team were targeted, with two moving to Australia to join the Sydney Roosters and one from this year’s team signing with the Newcastle Knights.

Those numbers merely scratch the surface of the issue, with other Auckland schools such as Saint Kentigern, Sacred Heart and Kelston, the latter with a traditionally strong league affiliation, also believed to have experienced multiple deflections.

NRL clubs are permitted to sign players – to contracts of varying length and financial benefits – from age 15. This promotes a cut-throat system where clubs and agents scout 14-year-old prospects.

One rugby parent, who wished to remain anonymous, detailed the prominent presence of league scouts from the Roosters, Warriors, Bulldogs and Storm, at last year’s national under-15s tournament in Hamilton.

“I didn’t see any Super Rugby teams there but there was a big league presence during the tournament,” the parent said.

Nationally other rugby schools confirmed a notable increase in visibility and activity of NRL clubs in schools in the last two years.

Following last year’s national under-15s tournament, teenagers as young as 13 from Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Auckland attended a slick Roosters training camp where six coaches put prospects through their paces. Trainings were held once a week at Onehunga High School.

Former Kiwis and Warriors fullback Brent Webb is running similar training camps in Auckland for the Bulldogs – and the Storm have a prominent presence in Wellington.

“It was the most professional junior training I’ve seen,” the parent said of the Roosters camp. “I was blown away when I went there. They had contracted boys there training in full Roosters gear. I didn’t realise they could be contracted at that age. After the first training, my boy was hooked and wanted to keep going.

“I talked to the parents on the sideline and they were all telling me they were moving with their sons over to live in Sydney. It was a common story, predominantly Pacific Island boys, and their families all moving to Sydney so their sons could be part of this Roosters development pathway.”

After the Auckland training camps concluded the Roosters flew teenagers to Sydney to sell the NRL dream; to tour their facilities, watch the top team train and shower prospects with club merchandise. Other NRL clubs follow the same blueprint.

“Rugby doesn’t have anything at that age,” the parent said. “There’s no Roller Mills anymore. All you need to get these boys excited is give them some kit or show a bit of interest. Rugby is in trouble if that many young kids are being approached and offered these contracts.”

The development of the Shaun Johnson Shield, first introduced two years ago, is further strengthening league’s lure for traditional rugby youth.

After that competition, a combined Auckland under-16s team tours Australia in the April school holidays, with the Warriors then naming an under-18 development side.

The Warriors this year won the under-17 Harold Matthews tournament in their debut season. Players in that team travel to Australia and are treated as professionals with three-hour trainings that includes weights, video analysis and field sessions.

Across their three pathway grades, the Warriors now boast 26 rugby union signings – 17 of those from Auckland schools.

League clubs train these teenagers through the summer months and while some such as the Warriors encourage prospects to return to their school teams under contract to continue their development, many other NRL clubs attempt to entice moves to Australia.

One school coach explains that once league swoops, teenagers are converted.

“They target the young ones quite early at 14, 15,” the coach said. “It’s appealing at the time when an NRL club wants to fly you over, put you in hotels and go through a training week.

“That’s why most kids at that age jump ship. They do a great job of reeling you in. They can see the dollar signs. It’s not much but it’s everything because they’re not really educated.

“As soon as they get a contract families jump at that chance, especially those that are less fortunate.

“Rugby the best they can do is under-17 Blues and it’s often too late by then for these boys. It’s really hard to get them back.”

League’s success in targeting young talent is partly due to its exponential commercial growth which allows all clubs to splash cash on development.

In 1996, some 28 years ago, the NRL’s total broadcast revenue was A$10 million compared to Super Rugby’s $85m. The NRL broadcast deal is now a $400m annual behemoth while Super Rugby garners around $120m.

As revenue continues to soar, the 17 NRL clubs each receive close to $19m every year before opening their doors.

NRL clubs earn at least twice that of their Super Rugby counterparts and spend four times as much on marketing – all of which vastly enhances visibility and advances initiatives such as scouting into rugby schools.

Alongside growing revenue Hore believes union’s most pressing issue is fixing the vexed pathways that see prospects bounce between provincial and Super Rugby representative teams – that start at under-17s – to leave confusion over where their future lies.

“That solid, strategic mindset for rugby league has built a capacity to extend their talent identification in rugby programmes,” Hore said.

“Rugby has an opportunity to do the same. With the new Super Rugby board we need a strategy on how we’re going to grow our business.

“At a schools match, you will have a Blues person but also provincial union people there. League will have one person there from the Wests Tigers or Warriors. All league is doing is putting these kids into a development arm with a sexy brand on it. We don’t do that in rugby union.

“Depending on which part of the country you’re in, Super either has a presence in that age group or it doesn’t. We don’t have under 15s representative teams.

“While we’re sitting here in this grey zone, another sport, well-resourced, well aligned, is coming in and taking advantage.”

Cracking the NRL is much harder than signing the first contract but having increased their feeder systems to four avenues that include Harold Matthews (under 17), SG Ball (under 19), Jersey Flegg (under 21) and NSW Cup (reserve grade), league has a unified pathway to sell its dream.

“I know as a parent I want my 15-year-old to stay in school first because bugger all of them actually convert but for some parents that isn’t such an easy choice,” Hore said.

“The pathway is very simple for these kids. They go from that school to that NRL club and then they’ll be farmed back into age-grade teams. They have that feeling of affinity directly through to the brand.

“We are living in a 20-year-old system that is complicated to chart your way through. You move from provincial union to Super back to provincial.

“We need to make some decisions about how we align and simplify our message, and grow capacity and resource, for whatever entity is going to take the lead to counter that. Staying as we are is not an option.

“We’re not pulling it all together. As a consequence you’re seeing a perfect storm where the NRL has grown commercially and they’ve got a very simple message. That’s appealing to these kids.

“Rugby getting in with a unified story to those young people while continuing to nurture them in the right way, will mean they stay engaged.

“Because of all the fighting upstairs we’re not nurturing in the same way we were and that’s the concern.”

Competition for talent, particularly in Auckland, the world’s largest Polynesian base, will always be intense but contracting youth at 15 years old raises the question of how young is too young.

While union takes a hands-off approach at that age, league is not alone in scouting young talent with basketball, football, touch and netball all providing under-15 provincial and national representative teams.

“We are a sport that wouldn’t do some of the tactics we’re seeing from rugby league,” Hore said. “We’re a sport that has traditionally been known for nurturing young people – and done a good job of it.

“There’s a lot of kids that are going at 14, 15 and it’s ruining their lives. We’re a late-maturation sport. You can’t make strong predictions at 15. There’s going to be a lot of hit and miss. If you’ve got money to take that risk, take it. If you’re a sport like rugby that doesn’t have that money you’ve still got to do something.

“We can make it simple to stay in the game and show them a simple pathway. All the parts are there for rugby union as well but just as we did around our income and growing Super Rugby, we got complacent.”

Kiwis stars Jason Taumalolo and Joseph Manu are success stories of teenagers who moved to Australia from school. Nelson Asofa-Solomona also signed with the Melbourne Storm at 15. Yet others who are chewed up and spat out are rarely if ever publicised.

In some instances, as few as four proteges from an NRL club’s junior ranks progress to first grade. When 15-year-olds leave familiar surroundings to chase the dream in Australia, or commit their future to one code, it can add a heavy burden to succeed and often the expectation of becoming the family provider.

Former All Blacks second-five Pita Alatini, now assistant coach of the King’s College first XV, has witnessed that scenario.

“We hear these stories of the whole family going over to Australia but the pressure is so much because everyone has put their eggs in that basket,” Alatini said. “At 15, 16 that’s so much to take on, knowing the family is counting on you to put them in a better position lifestyle-wise. Very few manage to break through.

“Those kids are still developing, especially in their minds. Physically some of the skills are at a level where you can see why they would try and contract them early but that comes with a lot of pressure.

“It’s not reality in terms of where that kid is going to be. The real test is how many go all the way. I’m a big advocate that at 15, kids are still young, they’ve got so much more to learn. They see it as a genuine pathway but the reality is it might help you in one aspect of your life.

“Kids should be enjoying their sport at that age rather than being so outcome driven.

“Some of these kids came from league into the first XV and that helps their development. Where it’s flipped is these kids who have grown up in rugby are now all going to league.”

Early exposure to league high-performance environments can benefit young athletes. Chiefs wing Etene Nanai-Seturo signed with the Warriors at 15 which enhanced his physical development. NZ Sevens representative Che Clark signed with the Storm during his final two years at King’s College which allowed him to rub shoulders with renowned Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy.

Wasserman Rugby league agent Jordan Friend says education and advice are critical in teenage prospects making informed decisions that shape their future.

“There’s 17 clubs in the NRL that are all competing against each other. As a result, the market is way more competitive than rugby union. There’s not a ‘let’s wait and see’, it’s looking to engage players at a younger age,” Friend said.

“Interest in rugby league has gone through the roof. A lot of these kids – about 70 per cent who get talked about in these cases – have dabbled in rugby league or played both codes.

“That’s grown with the increased junior rep programmes. They want to be part of those competitions.”

Friend suggests flexibility is important, pointing to the likes of Auckland’s De La Salle College and St Paul’s, and St Thomas in Christchurch where former All Blacks hooker Mark Hammett is director of rugby, as examples of schools that allow students to play both codes, although this raises concerns around workload management.

NZ Rugby high performance player development manager Matt Sexton outlined rugby’s contracting policy.

“Our approach is not to contract players while they are in school, when we believe they should be growing as people, growing physically, and also developing their skills,” Sexton said.

“However, that’s not to say we aren’t actively identifying and tracking talented players as they develop in rugby.

“We only have a small touch point with players at school because we are a late developing sport, so we generally won’t engage directly with players until after 16. While there may be touch points, we don’t do a lot with them until they leave school and enter our elite development programmes, which is when we’ll start to look at character, attitude and maturity.”

In a further sign of the NRL’s mounting appeal, two players from this year’s King’s College first XV have signed with the Titans and Broncos to follow the likes of 21-year-old Warriors centre Ali Leiataua and the highly rated Francis Manuleleua, the No 1 school rugby prospect now ensconced with the Penrith Panthers. Seven more players from the St Kent’s first XV are signed to NRL clubs.

Anecdotally the groundswell of support behind the Warriors in recent years, combined with the NRL’s engagement in fantasy leagues and on social media platforms, is capturing the hearts and minds of the next generation.

Hore, though, remains confident that if rugby overhauls its identification and development, it retains the ability to dazzle teenagers before they are snapped up elsewhere.

“Rugby still has a prominent place. Rugby clubs are still a fantastic place to take your children. These kids are playing rugby first and then being poached by league. It’s not the other way around. Where is league’s pathway?

“The big rocks aren’t hard. In the majority of cases we’re doing them well we’re just letting ourselves down around the pathway.

“I do not buy for one minute this is not a great sport. People are playing and engaging but we need to fix the juncture between professional and development. People are getting the two confused.”

As rugby stands off, league is swooping to win the race to secure future talent and eat away at union’s traditional production line.

By Liam Napier of the NZ Herald.