Playing football at elite level is tough, with only a minority able to transform their love of the game into a long and lasting career. The NRL has been encouraging players to seek out qualifications and other employment opportunities, mentoring and supporting those who take on apprenticeships and trades as another "Plan A" career path.
Eden Brae's Nathan Owens and John Hutchinson, Careers and Training Manager for the NRL, got talking late last year at a HIA networking event. "We'd recently launched our new apprenticeship initiative as part of Eden Brae's Pathways Program of learning and development, and the NRL was looking for ways to offer their players genuine career options post-football," explains Nathan. "John was impressed with what we were doing and, before long, he'd organised face-to-face meetings with the Parramatta Eels and the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs."
Nathan is enthusiastic about the outcome of that chance encounter. "It's excellent for young apprentices to see up-and-coming NRL stars taking part in the program and the players have the confidence of knowing there's another 'Plan A' if NRL doesn't work out. It's great role modelling and lifts everybody's game. We've already taken on our first apprentice through the partnership and look forward to taking on more."
That apprentice is Fili Havea. At just 18 years old, he considers himself a lucky guy. Spotted early as a player with potential, he spent a fair amount of time with the Bulldogs under-20s, playing their pre-season round in 2016. "One of my best mates' dad is a supervisor with Eden Brae," says Havea. "I was going to ask him for a job around the same time as the Bulldogs got involved with Pathways. I wanted to do a trade and they offered me a bricklaying apprenticeship, so I didn't hesitate to jump right in."
Much to his surprise, he loves the work. "I had no experience of bricklaying at all. In fact, my mates told me it was awful, so I was expecting the worst. But these guys here are as welcoming as anything and I've enjoyed every day."
Havea believes the rigorous discipline of football has already helped him in his new career. "In footy, you have to be disciplined in every way – you can't make stupid decisions or be lazy on or off the field," he says. "Your coaches and trainers are on you for everything, and it's the same with bricklaying. My boss is always showing me how to do things in a better way; the right way. You have to be disciplined not to react to it as criticism, but see it as someone helping you to be the best you can be."
Does he see a parallel between the skills of football and those of being a tradie? "Absolutely. Eden Brae put me through a three-day TAFE course to give me insight into how to lay bricks. They said I had natural aptitude, just like I had for footy and that made me feel really good. The teacher thought I must have done it before, but I'd never even picked up a trowel! Good communication between us all on site is essential, too. Same as on the field, everyone needs to back everyone else up by doing their bit at the right time."
According to Havea, it's the positive team environment at Eden Brae that makes all the difference. "I like playing my part and knowing I can make a difference. They make it seem like we're all one workplace, one family, one crew. The way I see those above me insisting on perfection is just fantastic. They have that kind of attitude for the home we're building as though it's their own and they want it to look perfect. Now, whenever I go past a building site, I find myself judging the brickwork of every house I see."
It was a hard choice to make, but Havea eventually decided not to pursue a career in NRL and is now fully focused on learning his new craft. Nathan summarises by saying, "It's a great outcome whichever way you look at it. Fili explored his opportunity with the NRL to the full and he's happy he's made the right decision. And it's still good news from the NRL's perspective because they insist their players must have another career option in place in case a career in football doesn't work out. So, it really is a win all round."
*The Bulldogs Wellbeing and Education team would love to hear from prospective employers keen to assist other young players with an apprenticeship.