Brett McCroary was stoked when he landed a cash gig playing rugby league in England in his younger days.
He no longer had to balance the demands of training as an elite footballer, with the need to pay the bills like anyone else.
“It was 200 pounds,” he recalled to a group of St George Illawarra Dragons Under-20s players on Thursday.
“It was really good – I didn’t have to work!”
Today’s elite footballer is a professional – with demands on their time even greater than many other professionals. They live, breathe, eat and sleep NRL, with diet and social activities also coming under the club’s influence.
The very top players can be paid up to $1 million per year, with the average first grade salary somewhere around $150,000.
Not too long before McCroary was playing even high-level players often had to had to work. Many of us who were born in the 1970s or earlier remember watching league games where commentators would talk about a player’s weekday job during the game.
The high stakes of today’s professional game mean it can be an all-or-nothing proposition. Whether players retire after a great career at the top level, or don’t get that far, young men can leave the game and find themselves having to earn a living without having experienced much else.
But this year’s crop of rugby league rookies will be better prepared for life after the NRL bubble if a program being run by NSW TAFE succeeds.
TAFE and the St George Illawarra Dragons are together running the Playwise Training Program which kicked off this week. Over two days the rookie players take sessions at Wollongong TAFE in vocational areas including carpentry, painting and decorating, hospitality, and community services. The aim is for them to get a taste of courses they might like to do, and discover an alternative pathway.
McCroary is now a full-time carpentry and building teacher at TAFE. He didn’t make it to the highest level, so he’s well qualified to talk about the need for a back-up plan. In his case, he had an apprenticeship through TAFE at age 18.
“What happens if you don’t make it?” he asked of the rugby league rookies.
“From my time in football, I know of many players who made lots of money, but when they finished football lost direction and blew it all. It may be a cliché, but it happens.”
“A program like this is for their future, the rookies need to have something after they finish league.”