ZERO TOLERANCE: Sunshine Coast Falcons CEO and Former Origin Great Chris Flannery, left, with Sunshine Coast police Superintendent Darryl Johnson, says when it comes to domestic violence, players know there will be no leniency shown to them.
ZERO TOLERANCE: Sunshine Coast Falcons CEO and Former Origin Great Chris Flannery, left, with Sunshine Coast police Superintendent Darryl Johnson, says when it comes to domestic violence, players know there will be no leniency shown to them. Patrick Woods

Working to keep rugby league's next wave out of the scandals

THEATRE sports and rugby league don't strike as the most perfect of matches, but it's a combination working to keep hundreds of prospects out of code-damaging or career-ending scandals.

Each year, before the start of the season, hundreds of Intrust Super Cup players descend on Brisbane for an intensive workshop.

'Semi-Pro Day' pits players into scenarios, played out by actors, where they may be offered illicit drugs, caught up in abusive relationships or confrontations, and teaches them to react appropriately.

Sunshine Coast Falcons players, some of whom are contracted to NRL powerhouse Melbourne Storm, are among the participants. All clubs bar the three northern-most are in attendance.

Social media workshops teach the young athletes how to navigate the world of recordings and consent to try and avoid the sex tape scandals currently plaguing the NRL.

Falcons CEO Chris Flannery, himself a former Queensland State of Origin and St Helens star and premiership winner with the Sydney Roosters, reckons the education is invaluable for both the players and the elite competition they're trying to carve a path into.

"It's (current scandals) not good for the code," he said.

"Some of these incidents that have happened this off-season have been horrendous."

St. George Illawarra Dragons player Jack de Belin (centre) leaves Wollongong Local Court in Wollongong, Tuesday, February 12, 2019. He's pleaded not guilty to sexual assault charges.
St. George Illawarra Dragons player Jack de Belin (centre) leaves Wollongong Local Court in Wollongong, Tuesday, February 12, 2019. He's pleaded not guilty to sexual assault charges. DEAN LEWINS

He said talking to sponsors and anyone involved in the game, the damaging headlines were the first thing they brought up.

"(Ben) Barba (sacked by the Cowboys), (Jack) De Belin (St George star who's pleaded not guilty to sexual assault), they're big talking points in the community, not just in rugby league," Flannery said.

He commended the NRL for the stance it was taking, albeit belatedly, to try and clean up the game's image, as it had been rocked by a series of sex scandals and serious allegations against players.

For Falcons players, Flannery said it was pretty simple.

Ben Barba was sacked before the season started by the North Queensland Cowboys.
Ben Barba was sacked before the season started by the North Queensland Cowboys. MICHAEL CHAMBERS

They were told up front, straight away, about the Falcons' community partnership with White Ribbon and there was zero tolerance of violence against women.

"We have high standards and expectations," he said.

"Obviously it depends what the incident is, but anything domestic violence-wise, certainly we won't be handing out any strikes... they (player involved) wouldn't be at the Falcons after that."

Strong leadership isn't the only thing helping Falcons players keep their names clean.

The connection with Melbourne Storm, as a feeder club, has given more Coast recruits interaction with what is a club structure renowned for its discipline and ethos.

Chris Flannery on his way to the line against the Eels in 2003.
Chris Flannery on his way to the line against the Eels in 2003. Colin Whelan

"There's obviously a good leadership group at the club," Flannery said.

"There's a lot of emphasis on each other to make sure everyone was doing the right thing."

Flannery said that culture had been driven by management and key players.

Time, or a lack of, was another factor which was helping keep noses clean.

"I firmly believe this competition, Intrust Super Cup... players are in a tougher environment than what the NRL players are," Flannery said.

Chris Flannery makes a break against the Panthers in 2005. Flannery said life as an NRL player often existed within a bubble and it was a learning curve when a professional rugby league career ended.
Chris Flannery makes a break against the Panthers in 2005. Flannery said life as an NRL player often existed within a bubble and it was a learning curve when a professional rugby league career ended. MATTHEW IMPEY

"All of our players are working during the day then training of an evening. There's not enough spare time here to get up to mischief to be honest.

"You don't realise it at the time but (playing NRL) you're in a little bubble. There's a lot of spare time.

"If something does go wrong most of the time the club's there to protect you. It's definitely an eye-opener (coming out of that environment)."

The talented former utility player said new Storm recruits went through a 2-3 week induction program, during which they were put to work in the community and shown a life without the trimmings of an elite NRL career.

EDUCATION: Players listen in to a session during the Semi-Pro Day.
EDUCATION: Players listen in to a session during the Semi-Pro Day. Queensland Rugby League

Flannery said he believed all NRL clubs should be making an effort to get players a taste of the outside world, if they were to start changing the attitudes of players.

The growth of the game had also brought more money to players at a younger age.

"We didn't earn 'big' money until were were 22-23, whereas now, at 18 or 19, they're being signed on really hefty contracts purely on potential," Flannery said.

"Some will never be able to earn the money they're earning playing rugby league (outside of the game)."

MESSAGE: Former Cowboys coach and current Queensland Wellbeing Manager Murray Hurst puts on a session.
MESSAGE: Former Cowboys coach and current Queensland Wellbeing Manager Murray Hurst puts on a session. Queensland Rugby League

The rise of technology had brought more scrutiny and opened up avenues for players to find themselves in massive trouble, as evidenced in the past few months.

Flannery said the workshops being undertaken were crucial to try and rebuild the game's image and create a next generation of players able to steer clear of scandal.

"It's just about educating the players," he said.

"It's (Semi-Pro Day) fairly interactive, it's definitely confronting.

"It's (major scandals) not good for the game."

The Semi-Pro Day Wellbeing Resource Expo was provided to players and club officials from both the Intrust Super Cup and Hastings Deering Colts competitions.

Participants were exposed to numerous programs and initiatives from Queensland Rugby League Wellbeing Managers and NRL staff.

Career presentations were given to under-16 and under-18 rep players, while education sessions on resilience, state of mind and respectful relationships were given to all.