OPINION: Joseph Suaalii is being set up to fail

Embed from Getty Images

I worry about the level of attention being afforded to Joseph Suaalii. 

I accept the NRL, broadcasters and media have a vested interest in promoting the game, but in the case of a teenager who until this weekend had only shown talent playing against other teenagers, there appears to be a severe lack of interest in ensuring his welfare.

The way Suaalii has been covered has been nothing short of irresponsible. Never before has an untested NRL player - who is legally a child - received such a disproportionate level of attention.

Off the back of a flashy highlights reel and a media appetite for content that can never be satisfied, Suaalii has been thrust onto a podium of clickbait journalism alongside the likes of Latrell Mitchell and Cameron Smith.

When have you ever heard of a reserve grade trial being live-streamed solely for the purpose of promoting a player who has yet to play first grade? As I write these words the absurdity of the situation becomes greater and greater.

As far as asinine coverage goes it is rivalled only by Fox League's Hayne Cam and Channel 9 airing an internal monologue from Sonny Bill Williams during his return to rugby league.

Suaalii may be physically capable of playing rugby league at a professional level this year, but mentally he cannot possibly be prepared for the hyper-intense scrutiny that is set to come his way. 

His performance for North Sydney over the weekend was not without praise. He produced an early defensive effort to prevent a try that spoke more of his ability than the two he scored. 

But it was one game.

Will he be able to live up to the hype when he requires a painkilling injection to get on the field for a match that has no bearing on the ladder?

When the day inevitably comes where he has a shocker, how soon will the fawning attention he is currently receiving turn to vitriol? He won't merely have an "off night", he'll be decried as "overrated, overpaid and reading into his own hype".

Perhaps you think I'm being overly dramatic or some "lefty snowflake who cares more about feelings than facts".

Maybe you're right, maybe you're wrong.

What I do feel confident in saying is we've seen what happens when a player gets an unwarranted level of attention at a young age.

Ashley Taylor. Jamal Idris. Tim Smith. 

All three were Dally M Rookie of the Year winners. All three stepped away from the game for a period when the fishbowl existence of the NRL became untenable. 

Sione Mata'utia was at a similar age when the hype to blood him in first grade began. After playing the final seven matches of the 2014 season for Newcastle he found himself in a green and gold jersey as the youngest player to ever represent the Kangaroos.

The rapid rise had a detrimental effect on his development the following year where he was caught in an identity crisis of being an Australian international unable to justify his position in the team at times. 

He eventually grew into a regular first grader, but by his own admission the pressure took a personal toll.

More recently, the last time a club wanted to debut a 17-year-old in first grade was Bronson Xerri.

Physically capable, mentally unprepared.

Suaalii won't be eligible under the current NRL rules to play first grade until he is 18 in August. 

ARLC chairman Peter V'Landys and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo have previously spoken on the possibility of making an exception to the rule, which was introduced to manage the expectations of young players still in the process of developing physically and in their knowledge of the game. 

The NRL proudly touts its State of Mind campaign as a driver to reduce stigma around mental illness and improving understanding of mental health throughout the wider community. 

Given the game's profile and reach it is a noble aspiration, however it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile when it actively portrays a child as one of the faces of the game before he has debuted in first grade.

I can't claim to know the innermost thoughts of Joseph Suaalii, but if all the adults in the room were declaring me as a superstar and considering a move wherein the rules did not apply to me, I might have a distorted sense of perspective.

For Suaalii's sake, I hope the age restriction rule is maintained - history shows anything less is just setting him up to fail.