Stars studying books, not game plans

Dave Shillington jokes that he started his Bachelor of Business so he could keep up with the conversation around the family dinner table.

For Brent Tate, it started like it does for practically every player who comes into contact with Wayne Bennett: a conversation with Wayne Bennett.

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They have lifted Origin shields and represented their country together, and on Tuesday made up a pair of the oldest debutants you would hope to find this side of Graeme Langlands' bootstraps.

Shillington (31) and Tate (32) are first-timers in the NRL-RLPA Academic Team of the Year for 2014. 

And proud as punch to be counted amongst the smartest cookies in the rugby league biscuit tin.

Not to mention astounded at how far the game has come at encouraging tertiary education and workplace training amongst its ranks since they both hit the scene over a decade ago.

"It's incredible how much things have improved and changed for the better when it comes to guys pursuing outside study," says Shillington, who is halfway through a business degree at the University of Canberra.

"It's gone from a few people putting their hands up to do a personal training certificate which they'll probably never use to some blokes doing double degrees."

He's not wrong. Amongst the class of 2014 are Manly's Brenton Lawrence with a Bachelor of International Studies and Penrith's Ryan Simpkins, who holds a Diploma in Hydraulics Design. 

Coming through in the NYC's ranks there's even more variety from St George Illawarra's Adam Clune, hitting the books to get through a law degree at Wollongong Uni, to Titans prop Mitch Sharp, studying a Bachelor of Nursing.

Who says bookends can't be bookworms? 

Some 78 per cent of NRL and NYC players – that's 800 of rugby league's elite athletes – are currently study or taking part in workplace training. The game's high-ups want that number bumped up to 84 per cent by 2017.

For Shillington's part, he's happy just keeping up with the rest of a family that values brains just as much as brawn.

"I was a bit slower to the study, but my younger brother James he's done his MBA, as has my older brother Johnny, and Mark (the eldest of the Shillingtons), he's an orthopaedic surgeon. So he's got the medical degree and a Masters in engineering as well," Shillington begins.

"They were excellent junior footy players. We all started out in the NRL system like I did but at around 20, 21 they decided to pursue academic careers over the footy careers, they just couldn't do both.

"Mark, he was trying to do an exam and he couldn't write because he'd had a shoulder reco and another time he had a broken finger.

"Johnny, he was working in finance and I remember he had a real bad head clash in a game and had about 12 stitches in his forehead.

"He was trying to deal with clients and people were horrified to see him. 

"The world's didn't mix very well for them but thankfully for me I can mix the two – the academics and the footy – and it's something that's getting easier and easier for players to do."

For any player who resists the thought of putting their energy and considerable talents to use anywhere but the football paddock, they need only look to the evergreen Brent Tate to set themselves straight. 

Over the course of 229 NRL games, 23 Origins and 26 Tests, Tate has stared down his own rugby league mortality more often than some first graders have had hot dinners. The neck injury that has seen him wear a brace every game since 2005, which should by all rights have ended his career there and then.

 The four, count them, four knee reconstructions he's endured, the last of which currently has him weighing up his playing future. For every Brent Tate, the champion who pulls through the adversity, there are 10 promising first graders who for whatever reason, injury, form or otherwise, simply do not make the grade. 

But even with all he has been through, it wasn't until a conversation with Wayne Bennett a few years back that Tate actually genuinely gave consideration to his prospects outside the greatest game of all.  

"We were sitting down at an All-Stars match talking about education," Tate recalls. "And just listening to what Wayne said, and he made the point that without an education you really have no hope. 

"And once I sat there and peeled back the layers of what he said, it's so true. And that's when I thought I'd better start to improve myself and better myself."

Tate has since undertaken a Cert IV in Frontline Management and a Cert IV in Small Business, with plans to his new skills once does finally hang up the boots.

"Early in my career I did a little bit of study and spent a few years away from it, and it's only in the last couple of years where I've come to realise that you can't rely on rugby league forever," Tate says.

"Whilst you want to back your work ethic and the person you are, the facts of the matter are you've got to have qualifications behind you. So there is that element of fear and just trying to prepare yourself as best you can for when you do finish.

"In our game now there really is no excuse for players not to want to do something. The funding is there, the help is literally a question away ... It makes me proud to have played rugby league as long as I have and to be a part of it."