<big>Rookies learn Life Lessons 101</big>
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Young players often prefer game-day punishment to off-field media and sponsor duties. West Tigers centre Blake Ayshford is among many on the personal development fast track, writes Daniel Lane.
When Blake Ayshford plays he’s expected to attack the Wests Tigers’ opposition with a barbarian’s vigour, he’s ordered to defend his line like a zealous patriot and to treat each on-field minute as if it’s how his mortal worth will be measured.
It’s challenging but playing for keeps appears to be the less stressful aspect of the young NRL footballer’s lot. The tough stuff, they say, is the off-field activities that were designed to add extra lustre to athletes who, whether they like it or not, are considered role models. They must cope with other demands, such as finding a manager, fulfilling the club’s many marketing and sponsorship obligations and media commitments, which some players nominate as a fate worse than death.
And they’re fodder for news stories, as Todd Carney’s drink-driving charge showed yesterday.
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NSW coach Ricky Stuart best put the new era into perspective when he said players had to realise league today was a sport of choices.
''The kids today have choices to make," Stuart said. ‘‘The choice is how they’ll use the eight to 10 years of their careers - which is a short lifespan - to make something out of their opportunities. Rugby league can offer a lot to the guy who has the right attitude and commitment. They’ll always outweigh those players with just pure ability. It’s not just about the talent.’’
Last week former Rooster James Aubusson told The Sun-Herald the pressures of media scrutiny and returning from seven operations forced him to choose to leave, at 24 - though, with 58 first grade appearances, Aubusson exceeded the average footballer’s career. Data released in 2009 showed the average was 49 games over 4.2 years.
The modern footballer crams a lot into his career. Ayshford, as have his teammates and players at a number of rival clubs, has done a deportment course to ensure he’ll do such things as use the correct cutlery at a club function.
He’s had other courtesies drummed into him, including how to address a VIP such as Premier Kristina Keneally or the state Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell by the correct title. The 22-year-old has also been trained to handle live television interviews and to cope with tough questions calmly.
‘‘It could be daunting talking to people or doing interviews, because most rugby league players come from modest backgrounds,’’ Ayshford said. ''But the etiquette courses help and the media training we’re put through does too. It’s given me a confidence.
‘‘In the four years I’ve been involved in [elite] rugby league, the amount of time spent on personal development has been incredible.’’
Ayshford is proud he has already bought a unit because it should ensure he’ll finish his career with something to show for the sweat he has invested.
The Wests Tigers have sunk a lot of their resources into him. Along with his teammates he has sat through lectures on the potential dangers of gambling, on the need to behave responsibly in night clubs and how to treat women with respect.
He’s constantly warned about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and he has been advised to treat social media with caution. He knows the importance of networking with sponsors and is poised to further his education through NRL-supported courses.
Old-timers will ask how this might improve him as a footballer but Ayshford, who grew up in working class Botany, believes it’s combining to help him develop into a rounded citizen. However, he admits one of the toughest experiences of his burgeoning career - even tougher than making his top grade debut against Brisbane knowing Darren Lockyer and Karmichael Hunt would target him - was the first time he visited terminally ill children when he was a rising star in the NRL under-20 competition.
‘‘We were 19 or 20 and we saw kids at hospital aged 16 who had to wear oxygen masks just to breathe and other kids with tubes in them keeping them alive … we had to do all we could not to cry in front of them,’’ said Ayshford.
''It was hard. You couldn’t ask, ‘How are you going?’ While we were briefed by our media manager, Wayne Cousins, on things to talk about, I didn’t know what to say. It is hard but the club gets told it helps the kids in many ways when the players visit and that’s a good thing.
‘‘They put everything into perspective, too. I’ll never complain 100 metre sprints in the heat is hard because I know there’s kids who don’t get to see the sun because of their problems.’’
The hospital visits are a harsh wake-up call, but there are others.
Parramatta strength and conditioning coach Hayden Knowles says young players must push themselves at every training session to prove they deserve their place.
‘‘They’re being tested every day,’’ said Knowles, who has watched the likes of Jarryd Hayne, Daniel Mortimer and Tim Mannah earn their stripes. ''They have the pressure of performing to impress the head coach, the conditioners and the senior players.
‘‘And they’re being watched; the older players want to see what they’re made of.’’
When there were questions raised about Hayne’s mettle when he was 17, Knowles arranged a shock session to prove he was tough enough for life in the top grade.
‘‘I had Danny Green wait for him on the top paddock,’’ said Knowles. ‘‘Picture it. You’re stopped in the car park on your way home, told to go to the top paddock and grapple with a world boxing champion. It’s dark, it’s raining and there’s no one to support you … if it scared Jarryd he didn’t show it. It only took a few minutes to realise he was the real deal because he quickly proved he was ultra competitive.’’
The trappings of success are a teenage boy’s fantasy come true. They enjoy fame, make money and girls show a level of attention most players have never encountered. ‘‘It was like being in a candy store,’’ said former Cronulla prop Jason Stevens, who says he went from being an overweight kid who couldn’t get a date for his school formal to being propositioned after matches by beautiful women.
‘‘The amount of opportunity and the level of temptation is enormous, but it opens up a minefield … you have to question the motives of a girl who wants to be with you just because you’re a footballer. Ultimately, you question yourself, too.’’
Stevens, who is now married, made a public declaration mid-career that he’d abstain from sex until he found the girl of his dreams. One-night stands were hollow and at odds with his life as a born-again Christian.
The old days of booze-fuelled nights are now fraught with danger. People armed with mobile phone cameras have snapped everything from Willie Mason urinating in a city lane to an intoxicated Sonny Bill Williams in a toilet cubicle with ironwoman Candice Falzon in a pub toilet.
Ayshford said sometimes, on his rare nights out with friends, strangers wanting to prove their toughness had challenged him. He is well aware there are consequences if he takes the bait. Young players have been expelled from clubs due to grog-induced errors of judgment.
Penrith winger Sandor Earl, who is described as a respectful 22-year-old, did not have his contract renewed by the Roosters after he and Jake Friend (who was sacked and then re-signed), Mitchell Pearce and Manly halfback Kieran Foran finished a night out in the 2009 season in the police cells.
Earl was cleared of any wrong doing - he had actually quelled a volatile situation - and he described the turmoil as he waited to resume his career as traumatic.
‘‘I don’t really drink, I’m not a big drinker, I don’t have a problem with alcohol and a lot of people I know were surprised when they heard of the trouble,’’ he told The Sun-Herald at the time.
''But the process [after a player gets in trouble] was a shock. It was full on, you don’t realise what it is like until you go through it. We were dragged to the police station and we had to sit in the cells. We were instructed not to talk [to the media]. ‘‘It was [after] my first first-grade game so not many people latched onto me but it was incredible to see a few footballers drinking and a scuffle [covered like] a murder.’’
Earl said he did not believe the incident had ruined his life but on several occasions he has publicly thanked Penrith and former international Brad Fittler for getting him to the Panthers for his second chance.
Social networking websites, which helped to bring former Raider Joel Monaghan undone when he was photographed with a dog, is another potential pitfall. Ayshford said he and his teammates were recently told by an IT expert that not only do they risk having their identities stolen online but a joke or throwaway line could have negative consequences.
The modern player: what they said
"It’s going to be hard to say no to a lot of the 21st birthdays I have coming up but you have to think big picture. If you do go you’re there for an hour, you don’t drink and go home, but at least you showed up for your mate. People mightn’t consider that a sacrifice, but if I had a 21st and someone I considered a close friend didn’t turn up, I’d be dirty.‘’
Jamal Idris, 20, Canterbury
‘‘I was really nervous before my debut because it was a Channel Nine game and I worried about stuffing up on TV. You realise it’s important to collect yourself real quick. My first game was against guys like [Darren] Lockyer, Karmichael Hunt, Justin Hodges and Sam Thaiday, and I was on the side where Lockyer and Hunt attacked. I was nervous - you wonder about competing against men - but you have the boys around you, and a player has to get through that to play first grade.’’
Blake Ayshford, 22, Wests Tigers
“When you’re 20 and get money you think, ‘Oh, I’ll go and spend it and wait until my next pay.’ It is easy to lose track of it and all you have is a few shiny things to show for it. I spent a bit and I started to think about it, and my brother controlled my money. It’s the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”
"There is a vast range of age groups in league - there’s the senior players who are settled and have families, and there are young guys. Everyone is on a different journey, but a strong club will have a moral fibre and that is set by the older guys.‘’
Former St George and Cronulla prop Jason Stevens
Education and expectation
"We have a policy that you either work or study to play in our under 20s. Ultimately it comes back to the club to have an overarching view that football has ways to make players fitter, stronger and faster, but we want to teach them other skills to ensure they leave the organisation in better shape than they arrived. It could be a university degree, money management skills, an HSC or a fork-lift licence, but they’re all important.‘’
Canterbury CEO Todd Greenberg