Growing up on the Gold Coast, I’m somewhat of a rugby league tragic (by which I mean that despite playing the game for many years as a kid, my game is a tragedy).
Even though I only ever scored one try and was awkwardly taller than everyone else on the field, I still thought that one day might be able to play alongside Dale Shearer and the rest of the Gold Coast Seagulls.
But reality ultimately came calling and in the same year that the Seagulls pulled the plug (1995), I too put an end to my fledgling career at the seasoned age of 11 (I still think 12 would have been the age when everything just clicked, but it was not to be).
So I understand what it’s like to have a singular focus on playing a game at which so few people will ever be successful. Luckily, I found journalism but so many players who stick with the game far longer than I did will not adequately prepare for life after the game.
John Hutchinson is out to change that.
John is currently the education, training and employment manager for the National Rugby League (NRL) and has been working in player development since 2000. Recently, he has spearheaded the Australian Apprenticeship Ambassador program which aims to promote apprenticeships to players as well as the wider community.
“So many of the guys playing in the NRL aren’t going to have a very long career. In the junior grades, most won’t have a career at all. So it’s important that players understand this and plan for life off the field,” John says.
“The average playing career is about three to four years. So for us, it’s important that the guys have something else going on in their life other than just footy.
“Even if you’re lucky enough to become a ‘marquee player’ who has a career for 10 years, that’s not very long. 10 years is nothing. There’s a lot of living beyond those 10 years.
“There’s a perception out there that footballers have got too much time and too much money. But when you scratch below the surface, nothing could be further from the truth.
“The average salary isn’t enough to retire on.”
Currently, about 25% of players are completing an apprenticeship. A further 25% go to university.
“We would love this number to grow because of the natural fit between league and the trades, but the demands of the sport at the elite level make it quite hard. They need a really sympathetic employer if they’re going to be successful.”
Interestingly, being an electrician is one of the most popular trades among players.
“The three biggest trades among players are plumbing, electrical and carpentry. When I asked players why these three were sp popular, they told me it was because they would never be out of work.
“Players tend to be very pragmatic and very practical. They like things in black and white and they like learning by doing. That’s why these trades are a perfect fit.
“We’re very much a blue-collar sport. Our guys come from working class backgrounds and many of their parents have been in trades themselves. So they often have a natural affinity towards trades.”
According to John, many of the players who have completed an apprenticeship are quite adamant it had improved their game on the field, too.
“There’s discipline in having to get up at a certain time, being on the tools all day and then going to training when you’re tired. You have to be pretty tough,” he says.
“Vice versa, the discipline they learn playing football carries over into their trade work.
“Playing junior footy is an apprenticeship in itself. You start as a 16-year-old, learn lessons and progress through to the Under 18s, if you’re lucky. Then if you’re lucky again, you’ll go through to the Under 20s.
“If you’re really lucky you get to go play with the big boys. Just 9-10% of our current Under 20s cohort, which is around 500 players, will ever make it through the top level.”
That means about 450 players will not make it.
Each player in the Under 20s and the NRL are entitled to up $2,000 per annum in financial assistance for TAFE or university courses. John says there are now plans to expand this to state league competitions.
“All these players need is a bit of support and the right kind of support will help them to be successful,” he says.
FROM EEL TO ELECTRICIAN
David Gower, 31, has been playing professional rugby league since 2006. Currently playing for the Parramatta Eels, David is a qualified electrician who strongly advocates apprenticeships among the playing group.
“When I finished high school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. My father and grandfather were builders but carpentry wasn’t really for me,” he says.
“They suggested the electrical industry. I was always relatively good at school and I enjoyed maths, which is obviously a big part of getting into the electrical industry. I was also lucky that one of my coaches from when I was a young fella owned a contracting company based in Galdesville, which wasn’t too far from where I lived.
“Initially I was going to help out as a trades assistant but my former coach suggested coming on as an apprentice.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time as an apprentice. And the company – Raven Electrical – was fantastic, especially working around my footy commitments.”
After two-and-a-half years working with Raven, David packed his bags and moved to the UK for 18 months, to play in the English Super League.
“When I came back, I picked up where I left off at Raven. I transitioned straight back into work. It was fantastic from a development point of view, being a tradesman and having to juggle work and football.
“Being a tradie teaches you discipline and time management skills, and you develop a real hunger to work hard and succeed. I’m really thankful for Raven and my time as an electrician because it made me appreciate hard work and really look forward to the challenge.”
During his time on the tools, David was involved in some high profile projects, including the Lane Cove Tunnel, the heritage-listed Transport House in Circular Quay and the Children’s Medical Research Institute at the Westmead Children’s Hospital.
“I was 25 when I started playing football full time. That was the end of 2010, so I spent a good five years in the trade.
“Nowadays, a lot of guys transition straight into full time football. They don’t enter the workforce or study anything that is meaningful.
“In the Parramatta squad right now, just me and Cody Nelson, who is two or three years into an electrical apprenticeship, have a trade behind us. There’s a big gap around education for players.
“I find this surprising because with being a tradesman, the hours are good and it’s physical work so you would think that a lot of athletes would be interested, but a lot of young kids put all their eggs in one basket.”
David says he’s sure that the electrical industry will play a big role in his future.
“Being an electrician is fantastic. It’s a well-paying job and it’s a stable job. And the electrical industry is always going to be around and need skilled workers.
“A lot of other industries are becoming automated and moving away from manual labour. For me, having a trade, even if you ultimately want to do something different, is a fantastic ‘fallback’. It will give you skills and life lessons, and more importantly it’s something that nobody can ever take away from you.
“If all else fails, you can always get back on the tools and be well paid.
“I thought about giving up the trade after two-and-a-half years, when I moved to the UK, but I know I made the right choice in seeing it through.”
Most recently, David completed a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. His plans for after his football career include the potential of heading back to TAFE to become an electrical trade teacher.