The curse of the 'second year syndrome'
Boom boy… future international… the next big thing. We see players handed these over-used epithets every rugby league season. Many live up to the glossy expectations; but our history is littered with those who haven’t done so.'<br><br>Sometimes it is the expectation and pressure that beats them. Often it is injury. Or attitude. <br><br>The Dally M Rookie of the Year award has a handy strike rate of just more than 50 per cent of winners progressing to play Tests for Australia or New Zealand and some more to State of Origin.<br><br>There are the many other boy geniuses who didn’t reach those heights but had careers that should be admired. Then there are the other 'whiz kids' who we can only ask ‘what happened to...?’<br><br>Bulldogs winger Matthew Callinan, from Wingham on the NSW mid-north coast, was the talk of the league when he scored two tries in the 1985 preliminary final against Parramatta, disposing of the great defender Ray Price with a fend for one of them. The following Sunday he won a premiership medal… in his eighth first grade match.<br><br>And then he was gone. A handful of top-grade appearances followed and he retired – at age 22.<br><br>Michael Hagan, the ’Dogs’ centre in the ’85 grand final victory, lived in a club-supplied house that year with Callinan and David ‘Cement’ Gillespie. He remembers the laid-back Callinan as a player <br>of unlimited talent.<br><br>“He did get hurt a bit the next year (shoulder and sternum injuries) because he was pretty slightly built but basically he just decided he’d had enough; he’d won a grand final and wanted to do other things – and I don’t think he has regretted it much since,” says Hagan. <br><br>Only die-hard Western Suburbs Magpies supporters would be familiar with the name Angelo Alavanja. He was an Adonis-looking second-rower, the star of the under-21s competition in 1990 who looked a tremendous prospect when coming off the bench on six first grade games.<br><br>Coach John Bailey decided to give Alavanja his run-on debut against a Newcastle Knights pack that, even with props Mark Sargent and Paul Harragon injured, was regarded as just about the meanest in the league. <br><br>The Daily Telegraph-Mirror ran a back-page story boasting how the youngster was the tough new kid on the block who was going to take on the rampaging Knights, creating absurd pressure for the 19-year-old. <br><br>Sargent, watching from the Campbelltown Stadium grandstand, can still picture Alavanja’s first hit-up. “It was like the start of the 100m at the Olympics as the Newcastle forwards went for him like a pack of dogs,” he says. “Boydy [David Boyd] got there first and hit him square on the chin. He was knocked out cold and taken off. It was ugly.”<br><br>Alavanja’s confidence was so badly damaged he never played first grade again.<br><br>The rookie of the year honour roll throws up (in 1997) Illawarra prop Scott Cram, a 20-year-old from Wests Wollongong. His team-mate Trent Barrett would have won the award but a two-week suspension made him ineligible, shifting the honour to Cram.<br><br>The following year he played 17 top grade games (13 from the bench) but couldn’t make the ‘cut’ in the Illawarra-St George merger, having to move to London to continue his career with the Broncos.<br><br>He played three seasons there before, a week after copping a nasty head knock, was stripped, ready to play against the all-star Wigan side when he collapsed in the toilet. It was found he’d burst an artery in his neck and the blood flow to his brain had been blocked. His career was finished at age 25.<br><br>Eels and Rabbitohs fans will remember a smart, reliable utility-back in David Penna from 1991-2000. What most won’t know is just what a rare dynamic talent he was at 17; he rates with Phil Blake, Andrew Johns, Peter Sterling and Owen Craigie as the most brilliant teenagers I saw play.<br><br>In 1990 Penna scored six tries in a day for Parramatta (five in under-23s, one in reserve grade) and played first grade at 17. So impressive was he, he was about to be signed by English club Wakefield Trinity in England, alongside international Chris Mortimer, for the Aussie off-season. <br><br>I had just signed on as Wakefield CEO and arrived at North Sydney Oval to discuss a deal with the young player and his agent John White, only to see Penna – Billy Slater-like with his ability to shift direction at top speed – dislocate and break his ankle so badly it faced the sky while he lay on his side.<br><br>It was seven months before he could play again, only for his other ankle to go, and with his speed and confidence badly affected, he was never the same player despite playing in 132 first grade games from 1990-2000.<br><br>“I look back and know I didn’t achieve what I wanted to; I put on weight but never regained my speed after the injury,” reflects Penna, now Manly’s Toyota Cup coach. “But I worked hard to have reasonable success and I’m thankful for that.” <br><br>The quickest rise and fall in the past decade belongs to former Brisbane winger Leon Bott. He was still at high school and on a $20,000 contract in 2005 (having reportedly knocked back a massive deal with the Roosters) when he scored 13 tries for the Broncos and mesmerised defenders with his blinding speed. <br><br>Bott played just two more first grade game, despite switching to Cronulla and the Bulldogs, and is now playing rugby union with Manly – still just 22.<br><br>But Craigie would probably take the title for being the the most brilliant ‘prospect’ and not fulfilling his promise. He was the only player in history to have represented the Australian Schoolboys for three straight years. He played first grade at 17 for Newcastle in 1995 and had won a reserve grade and first grade premiership at 19 – yet never played representative football. <br><br>He retired at age 26 (after 153 NRL games which is certainly a fine career).<br><br>Danny Buderus, who lived with Craigie for two years, rates Craigie with Andrew Johns as the most gifted player he played with.<br><br>“But I learnt early that talent is not enough in the NRL and maybe ‘Owie’ is the best example of that,” says Buderus. “You see a lot of ‘next big things’ hit the scene but it is attitude and dedication that is the important thing in the long run.”<br><br>As Big League celebrates its rookies edition, that is appropriate advice.<br><br>