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Wests Tigers’ rookie camp participant Matt Groat gives an inside look at what the NRL’s annual Toyota Cup induction camps are all about after spending the weekend with 79 players from the Sharks, Roosters, Eels, Bulldogs, Panthers and his own club at the Sydney University Village at Newtown.

The three-day camp (Dec 9-11) was the third and final round of induction camps held over the past three weekends at the Gold Coast and Sydney involving 240 players entering the Toyota Cup in 2012. The players were put through extensive training in media, cultural awareness, drugs and alcohol, social media, money matters, community work, social responsibility and personal presentation.

While Groat made both his Toyota Cup and NRL debut this year for the Wests Tigers (10 games), the 19-year-old front rower will play Toyota Cup again next season and was keen to attend the rookie camp which he missed last year because he was touring with the Australian Junior Kangaroos.

Hailing from Rankins Springs, near Griffith, with a population of 100, it is no wonder the small-town country boy was blown away by some of the confronting workshops with real-life accounts from former players.

The unique combination of the induction camps, on-going education initiatives and a ground-breaking Toyota Cup competition that includes mandated non-training days and a “no work/study - no play rule” sets the NRL program apart.

The likes of Tariq Sims, Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans have already made a huge impression in the game’s elite competition after first learning their trade in the Toyota Cup.

The popularity of the competition is also on the rise with over 1.1 million fans in Australia and New Zealand tuning in to watch the Warriors beat the Cowboys 31-30 in golden point extra-time in the 2011 Toyota Cup Grand Final.

Friday, December 9
The camp kicked off on Friday night at 5pm with three workshops planned for the next four hours. It felt a bit like a reunion at first with players from a number of Sydney clubs whom I had played with over the years in Australian schoolboys or the Junior Kangaroos. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I wasn’t disappointed … and I didn’t have any trouble staying awake. The workshops were very interesting.

As former NRL star Owen Craigie was being introduced to us at our first workshop on Finance and Gambling, we were in awe (153 NRL games from 1995-2004). He lived the dream as a teenager, making his first grade debut at 16 and winning a premiership with the Knights at 18 at which time he owned two houses. He said he even bought himself a car before he got his driver’s licence.

What I didn’t expect to hear and what shocked us all was how that dream quickly turned into a nightmare as a result of a gambling addiction which saw him lose everything over the next 10 years … including $3 million, his relationship, everything he owned.

Hearing about gambling addiction from someone who has walked the walk really makes it hit home.

Owen said it started off small with bets on the horses and playing the pokies, then, with an influx of money, it spiralled out of control. It took him losing everything to stop.

Now at the age of 33, he says he hasn’t gambled for two years and he works with Mission Australia in Gambling Education.

The other presenter in that workshop was Tony Caine, a qualified financial adviser and former NRL player, who talked about how important it was to manage your money. (Tony played 16 NRL games between 2005-09 for the Sharks and Dragons).

Tony told us about how he broke his leg so badly four minutes into his First Grade debut with the Sharks that he didn’t play for 18 months. The doctors thought he may never play again but he did, although it was only another 15 games.
He recommended banking 10% of every pay packet. I am definitely going to start trying to do that after seeing what happened to him and how quickly your career can be taken away from you.

The next workshop on Illicit Drugs was presented by an ex-drug cop which made it more real. It was an eye-opener to hear about the effects of drugs and the drug industry.

The final workshop of the night was on Australian Cultural Awareness. The presenter, Billy Williams, had a hilarious outlook on life and was very good to listen to. I was surprised by how little I knew about Indigenous people and the huge amount of respect they give to their elders and customs.

Saturday, December 10
Today was a pretty full day of workshops and other presentations but they were all really interesting and really got you thinking.

Neil Cadigan spoke about player management and I was surprised to hear about some of the problems some players have with their managers.

Preston Campbell talked about One Community activities and it really inspired me to want to play hard like he did to have the opportunity to do the community work which I really enjoy. Preston told us about how one of his coaches once asked him to cut back on his community work so he could focus on his football, but Preston told him that doing the community work inspired him to work hard at his footy.

Former NRL player Matt Cross talked his battles with depression and suicide attempts and how it was because of his family and team-mates that he is still here. That was a strong message to look out for your team-mates when they have highs and lows.

The Sex and Ethics workshop provided some useful advice and tips on dealing with particular situations by going through a series of hypothetical scenarios. The stats on the number of women who get assaulted were staggering.

The Alcohol workshop reinforced why it is better to stop drinking when you are in a happy and relaxed state, than drinking too much and feeling terrible about it. The size of a “standard” drink surprised me – it was much smaller than I thought.

The Media workshop with Brett Kimmorley was really good. You don’t realise how hard it is doing that first interview in front of a camera and lights.

Sunday, December 11
The final day of the camp was shorter with just two workshops before returning home after lunch.

Alan Tongue and Bronson Harrison took the Personal Brand workshop which I really got a lot out of. It is the first time I have really thought about how others perceive me and how the way I behave reflects my “brand”.

The final workshop on Career Development, presented by Andrew Ryan and Kane Cleal, was also really motivating. Andrew talked about how he played his best football when he was engaged in something.

I am really keen to go back to the Wests Tigers and talk to the Welfare Manager straight away about a career path for life after football.

This year, as part of the Toyota Cup a “no work/study - no play rule”, I worked at Liverpool Catholic Club in gardening and maintenance, but I am keen to do something more now.

I had no idea what to expect of the Toyota Rookie Camp but I would have to say it was life-changing. Some of the lessons I learned over the two days are things that will help me in life, regardless of whether I am playing rugby league.