The youngest player ever to make his NRL debut, Jordan Rankin, has offered teen prodigy Joseph Suaalii some advice ahead of the 2021 season where he could make his debut at just 17-years old.
On top of the pressures of potentially playing in the NRL, the tug of war over Suaalii has dominated headlines for months.
First it was between the Rabbitohs, who he was contracted to and Rugby Australia. Then the Roosters entered the conversation and a battle between the rival NRL clubs ensued over young gun’s signature.
Ultimately Suaalii signed a two-year deal with the Roosters starting in 2022 and then this week was able to get a release from the final year of his development contract with Souths to make the switch to Bondi immediately.
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There’s been plenty of hype surrounding the Schoolboy sensation and there’s no doubt he is a future star of the game. While Rugby Australia were in the fight earlier this year, ARLC Chair Peter V’landys revealed he would consider relaxing the minimum age rule of 18-years old for an NRL debut to ensure Suaalii stayed in rugby league.
No official change has been made to the minimum age but the Roosters will likely take the steps to have him cleared to play next season.
It’ll be a big jump from playing schoolboy footy to playing against men but it’s not so much the physical demands that Rankin is most concerned for Suaalii about, it’s the mental challenges and the expectations he’ll face.
Rankin made his NRL debut for the Titans in 2008 at 16 years and 238 days old, making him the youngest to debut in the NRL and third youngest in Australian first grade history.
His debut came as a shock to everyone — including him — so the build up was only a couple of days, where Suaalii’s started months ago and will continue until he does make his debut.
Rankin believes that sort of attention and the that pressure comes with it is the biggest challenge Suaalii faces.
“It’s not so much about his ability at question, it’s probably everything that goes with being a first grade player and it’s everything that goes with being in the spotlight. That is probably the detriment to making your debut so young,” he told SEN’s Mornings with Matt White.
“He’s seen a lot more media before his debut than what I did. Mine was a couple of days before and then the aftermath where he hasn’t played at an adult level to really grasp where he’s at. But also the fact that people have touted him as the next this and the next that and that’s a lot of pressure to put on a young kid who’s still developing mentally more than he his physically.
“When I made my debut, Facebook had only just come into society and there was no Instagram. Clubs weren’t on those social media platforms and fans didn’t have a way of getting in contact with you and either spreading positive vibes or negative vibes towards you so you were quite sheltered.
“It’s the social media and media backlash before, during and after that has an effect on a young kid making his debut and just the mental toll of having to live up to expectations that you might not be ready to do just yet.”
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Physically, Suaalii fits the bill. He’s a towering 193cm tall and weighs 94kg. He has the skill to match his figure too.
Many believe the saying ‘if you’re good enough you’re old enough’ and while Rankin does think there’s a huge difference between playing against kids and playing against men, he recalls having a fearless attitude that comes with being naive that helped him in his debut.
“I do believe (that if you’re good enough you’re old enough) to a certain extent if we’re making a comparison to young Joseph who looks like an absolute talent. He’s carving up the younger competitions and there’s no doubt he’s a big kid who’s dominating the competitions of his age group,” Rankin said.
“It’s a tough one because the good enough, old enough thing is great in terms of letting a kid get out there and get amongst it but at the same time when you haven’t played against men and you haven’t played in that competition…
“But I ran out there at a first grade level at no more than 72kg, I was a young kid, I wasn’t developed at all in any form of the word.
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“I went out there and backed myself with my ability and I suppose at that age you have no fear and don’t think of any repercussions that come of it because you’re so young and so naive.
“I have no doubt that if Joseph got his opportunity that he’d do that himself.”
“I really feel for him because I’m sure as a young kid, it’s nice to have your name in the paper but probably not as much as it is. He probably just wants to get out there and play footy and prove his worth through the games that he wants to play with the Roosters.