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Clash of the codes: a new future for young rugby stars

On Friday NZ Rugby and the New Zealand Warriors came to a surprisingly amicable agreement on the release of Etene Nanai-Seturo from league. The consequences for young players are far-reaching, writes James McOnie.

Watch some highlights of Etene Nanai-Seturo and it’s clear — he’s a slippery customer. Turns out he’s a slippery employee as well.

Like a flailing defender, the New Zealand Warriors couldn’t hang on to him, and on Friday Nanai-Seturo was set free — free to pursue a career in rugby.

The resolution was made via mediation between the Warriors and NZ Rugby.

But the shockwaves of that decision will be felt far and wide across rugby and rugby league. For Under-18 stars who’ve been convinced to sign a contract by a smooth-talking scout or agent, it shows there’s a way out. It’s not quite a precedent (it never went to court) — but it will act as a guide and an example for young players and their parents.

Contracts signed by a minor aren’t binding in New Zealand and that was NZ Rugby’s argument as they grabbed Nanai-Seturo from the Warriors and threw him straight into the All Blacks Sevens team in January.

With that selection, the soap opera began. Warriors CEO Cameron George labeled NZ Rugby “disrespectful” and vowed to fight them. “We are not going to get pushed around by anyone, especially in this kind of situation.”

He was fired up. NZ Rugby’s Neil Sorensen responded: “We are definitely not walking all over anybody.”

All the while Nanai-Seturo (a star fullback for Auckland’s St Kentigern College First XV as recently as last year) went on to play his second Sevens World Series tournament for New Zealand, in Hamilton.

Then the warring parties went into mediation. At this stage I like to imagine a trained counsellor in a cardigan and sandals letting each person speak freely by using “I” language. “I feel… disrespected… [reaches for tissues] when you… take one of our players without asking nicely.” That kind of thing.

At 4.30pm on Friday afternoon a press release from NZ Rugby was emailed out, saying Nanai-Seturo had left the Warriors. Oh dear. Surely George would be fuming. Here’s what the release said:

Warriors CEO Cameron George welcomed the agreement and said he was looking forward to continuing to have a productive relationship with New Zealand Rugby. “We need to work together when faced with these situations and it is not in either of our interests for these matters to be aired in public,” he said. “The Vodafone Warriors wish Etene well with his career.”

Ummm OK. This doesn’t help the soap opera script at all but the mediator will be so proud of the progress Cameron has made.

While the terms of the agreement are confidential, it’s understood the NRL club was paid a fee to ensure the code switch. Nanai-Seturo, 18, will hope to make the Commonwealth Games sevens team and play Super Rugby with the Chiefs.

The Nanai-Seturo case will be quoted for years to come and it could open the floodgates for teenagers to switch codes either way. Some at NZ Rugby wanted to go to court, to test the law and set a precedent.

So what will change?

Well, you will still find agents and scouts from both codes at school rugby and league fields every Saturday. They will still do their best Jerry Maguire impression, charming the pants off the parents and convincing them that their club/agency will look after their boy. And some scouts will still aggressively target families that could really use money.

While these scouts pat themselves on the back for discovering a player, what needs to be said is everyone watching the game can see the player’s potential as well. It’s obvious. The coaches know, the other parents know, the school kids know. These athletes are supremely talented — they’re on the conveyor belt to stardom — so when a scout decides to throw some money at them, they’re merely formalising what everyone else sees.

The issue is the age that players are being signed. Some at just 14 or 15 years old. Nanai-Seturo was 15.

It’s said that NRL scouts like to get in early. When the Crusaders approached towering forward Nelson Asofa-Solomona when he was in the Wellington College first XV, he had already been contracted to the Melbourne Storm for two years. And it’s worked out for him.

Some switches happen without too much drama. Ngani Laumape was snapped up by the Warriors as a youngster but returned to rugby union. Nehe Milner-Skudder was with the Sydney Bulldogs under-20s in 2009/10 but came back to star in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Now, the Nanai-Seturo saga serves as a warning and a template to any parents of young footy stars. Their child’s ambitions at 15 and at 18 may vary. And the law is there to protect them.

So if an agent dazzles you with the promise of riches, just remember that’s what they always do. These people are experienced deal-makers and their spiel is well-rehearsed.

Your next move should be to get independent legal advice. Someone in your family might have a contact. The NZ Law Society and Auckland District Law Society websites will help you find a lawyer — on the latter you can search under ‘sports lawyer’ and it reveals 124 in Auckland alone, and 100 outside of Auckland.

If you can’t afford legal advice, contact the school principal. More often than not, your child has been approached while representing that school. It’s the school’s problem too. Or contact your nearest Citizen’s Advice Bureau — they offer free legal advice.

I’m sorry this column has ended up as instructional. But if you’re a child star or the parents of one, you know what to do: Lawyer up!

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Clash of the codes: a new future for young rugby stars