So close and yet so far. And yet still closer than before. This appears to be Joseph Suaalii’s lot this weekend.
The “will he, won’t he?” refrain has been humming all week since the 17-year-old was named in the Sydney Roosters’ extended squad on Tuesday. But, long story short, he probably won’t make his NRL debut against the New Zealand Warriors on Sunday afternoon, based on what coach Trent Robinson had to say.
“Most likely not,” Robinson said. “He’ll be in the 21 – I want to give him some of that experience. But we’re pretty good in the outside backs at the moment. But I do want to get him closer to the action. [Roosters feeder club] Norths don’t play this weekend for us, so I want to give him that experience of an NRL game day.”
Having been granted an exemption by the NRL to play before he turns 18 on 1 August, it seems only a matter of time before the highly theorised debut becomes reality.
The reported paperwork mix-up must have been resolved by the time the teams were released on Tuesday afternoon, and teammate James Tedesco believed him to be ready for first-grade physicality.
“I haven’t watched much of the Bears but physically he’s definitely ready, he’s a specimen,” Tedesco said. “Even just watching clips of his defence and attack, he doesn’t look out of place at all.”
It is true, Suaalii has been in impressive NSW Cup form for the North Sydney Bears and last week tackled Anthony Mundine’s son, South Sydney fullback CJ Mundine with such force he dislocated his hip and will be out at least three months.
Even so, there is the Sam Walker factor. The 18-year-old halfback is likely top be called upon to play in the halves after Luke Keary and Lachlan Lam both succumbed to injuries in last weekend’s loss to South Sydney.
Robinson’s general preference for caution suggests he might avoid blooding two teenage debutants in one outing. Still, desperate times and all that.
Keary’s season-ending ACL tear robs the club of their best playmaker, while Lam is out for up to six weeks with an MCL injury. Lindsay Collins is an expected absence through concussion and Daniel Suluka-Fifita is suspended.
Add Boyd Cordner (concussion), Jake Friend (concussion) and Adam Keighran (wrist) and the Roosters have not been in such an injury pickle for quite some time.
All told, 19 of Robinson’s 28 contracted players are fit, and the coach was forced to apply for an NRL exemption just to name a full 21-man squad. But, as he already noted, it is his halves depth which is lean, not his outside backs.
With Sam Verrills’ return from an ACL injury pushed back another few weeks, speculation is Drew Hutchison could well play at hooker and Joey Manu at five-eighth with winger Brett Morris moving to the centres. Technically that could provide Suaalii with an opening, though New Corp says that spot will go to Matt Ikuvalu.
The ARL Commission approved Suaalii’s exemption two weeks ago, following several months of debate around his readiness and availability and after meeting with Suaalii and his father, as well as Robinson.
In striking the deal, the Roosters have agreed to create a wellbeing and mentoring plan, a gambling and alcohol management plan and an assurance Suaalii completes year 12 at the King’s School.
NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said the ARLC’s move to allow Suaalii to play prior to turning 18 had followed a “rigorous process”.
Suaalii himself said he would “be ready”.
“As an athlete you kind of have to be, you want to be ready,” Suaalii told AAP at the time. “I’ve got a lot of stuff that I need to work on before I get to that point. But if I do get a chance to make my debut, it would be a childhood dream to go and play for the Roosters and make my NRL debut.”