It seems like teenage sensations are all the rage in the NRL right now. Sonny-Bill, Benji, Karmichael- all big names, and all just out of school (and all Kiwis, but that�s another story). Will today�s youngsters be tomorrow�s superstars? A look back at rugby league Macauley Culkins from years gone by tells an interesting story.
Remember Adam Ritson? You probably do- his departure from rugby league earned more media attention than anything he achieved on the field. It would be offensive to suggest that Ritson failed- there�s not much you can do when the doctors tell you to quit rugby league, or else risk your life. Ritson simply proves that life is unpredictable. One moment he was the biggest and youngest star in rugby league, the next, he was retired. Adam Ritson provides a valuable life lesson for all up and comers- nothing, not even playing into your 20s, can be taken for granted.
Then there are players who never reached their supposed potential. Russell Richardson made his first grade debut for Cronulla in 1996, and only a year later he was running out for the Super League Kangaroos. With that foundation, Richardson looked set to be a great. Unfortunately, he never again received the sort of accolades that he did as a 20 year old. Richardson is still only 27, but is struggling to get a run for Newcastle. Unlike Ritson, Richardson IS considered something of a failure- perhaps he was just an early bloomer, and didn�t have the improvement left in his game that most 20 year olds do? Likewise, Paul Mellor played first grade at 16 in 1991, yet never really earned the attention of rep selectors, with perhaps his finest form coming a full decade later.
Some prodigies, like Mellor, are thrust into first grade before their time. They miss out on their best years in the lower grades, playing at the top level while their mates enhance their reputations in SG Ball. Others are allowed to excel in the lower grades. Greg Alexander was a schoolboy superstar, and although he was only a kid of 18 when he made his first grade debut in 1984, he knew he belonged, and his rookie of the year performances proved it. Some players, like 1989�s boom 17-year-olds Brad Fittler, Tim Brasher and Jim Serdaris, are just ready; everyone knows it and their careers prove it. But for every Fittler there are three or four Luke Burts- players who suffer setbacks when they can�t perform like the champions they are led to believe they are, and spend the best part of 5 years struggling to emulate what they did at 17. A lot of this comes down to media and public pressure. Braith Anasta was more than ready for first grade in 2001- but was he ready to be called �the next Freddy� or �the future of rugby league�, to have fans idolise him one day and despise him the next, to have his every pass and kick scrutinised by so called experts? Probably not. Generally a degree of commonsense prevails, but when �The Messiah� comes along, hype can override reason.
What does all this mean for Benji, Sonny-Bill and Karmichael? Compared to some youngsters mentioned, Benji ( 19 ) and Sonny-Bill ( 18 ) are veritable Granddads. Williams wasn�t rushed into first grade, and this has translated into his being a solid performer thus far, even at international level. Marshall is a different story altogether- it is not so much youth at issue, as inexperience. A touch player up until 2002, he was thrust into the NRL with barely a years worth of tackling under his belt. For that reason alone, it is too early to make bold predictions about his future. Karmichael Hunt on the other hand IS very young, but Wayne Bennett is a canny operator, and Hunt�s performances so far suggest he is on course to replicate the feats of Tim Brasher, 15 years on.
There�s nothing inherently wrong in raving about a young player. Most of the time, rare ability can be spotted from an early age, and often will come to the fore at the top level. What is wrong is heaping unreasonable pressure on young shoulders, or blooding players before they are ready. For the sake of our game I hope that fans, coaches, and the media treat today�s prodigies wisely. It�s possible that we not only have �the next Freddy� on our hands, but also �the next Locky� and �the next Gordy�.
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