When Mark Nicholls joined South Sydney last year, the 29-year-old prop told Rabbitohs officials gaining experience in sports management was more important than money.
Nicholls, who has become a regular member of their squad this season, completed a Bachelor of Sports Management at the University of Canberra in 2012 while playing for the Raiders but had no practical experience to help him gain a job after his NRL career ends.
After sharing his frustrations at the lack of interest from employers with Rabbitohs officials Mark Ellison and Ben Rogers, he did work experience under chief commercial officer Shannon Donato and last month begun a job as business development manager for apparel company Brande.
"It’s given me something to do on my days off and when I get home from training I check my emails and send a few emails," Nicholls said.
"It has been really beneficial for me and it is a good outlet away for footy that can hopefully help set me up for life after football."
Before receiving an approach from former Rabbitohs coach Anthony Seibold at the end of the 2017 season, Nicholls had been in talks with a number of Intrust Super Cup clubs and told them a job could be a determining factor in where he played.
Despite most NRL players boasting traits many employers seek, such as work ethic, punctuality, ability to follow directions and a willingness to accept criticism, a lack of on-the-job experience counted against Nicholls.
"I said to a few clubs up there, ‘money isn’t everything for me’, but they sort of came back saying ‘you’ve got the degree but you’ve got no experience’," Nicholls said.
"After the opportunity came up at Souths me and my partner (Perrie Davis) had a talk and we decided I should focus on getting that experience.
"I spoke to the club and they said ‘come in here on your days off and we will show you how the commercial side of rugby league operates, you can do a few things for us and get some experience'."
Nicholls rotated through the Rabbitohs' marketing, merchandise, sponsorship and membership arms and worked on a Fan First strategy for the clubs who play at ANZ Stadium, which led to reduced ticket prices, food and beverage offers, improved transport and greater collaboration on the promotion of matches.
"It was a really big piece of work across a lot of stakeholders and Mark was really instrumental in some of that," Donato said.
"I was pleasantly surprised in working with him at how diligent he was and the skill set he had so it was a really good eye-opener for us in realising the capacity some of our players have, and I think Mark is going to have a big future post football.
"No matter what we threw him into he excelled and whether it be consumer business or corporate facing he was absolutely excellent, and on the back of it he has been able to secure some employment."
Nichols said the experience had given him a greater insight into how the club operates and an appreciation of the staff not involved directly in the football side of the business.
"The people across the road work so hard trying to generate money for the club and then it all goes into the footy team," he said.
"Basically they exist to try and make us successful team and South Sydney is a very strong community-based club so we get out in the community as much as we can.
"As a younger player I probably took player promotions and going to schools for granted but I realised across the road how important it is. If you make a positive impression on a kid, he or she might become a member for 30 or 40 years from that one experience."
Nicholls hopes to land a job in rugby league or another sport after he finishes playing, but after making a positive impact on new Souths coach Wayne Bennett he is aiming to play for as long as he can.
He believes the work experience with Souths and his new job has helped his football too and after playing just 28 Telstra Premiership matches in five seasons with Canberra and Melbourne, he has played 16 for the Rabbitohs.
That number would likely have been more if Nicholls didn’t break his leg last year. After signing a 12-month extension he knew he’d have to make a good impression when Bennett took over as coach.
"As a player on the fringe you sometimes doubt your ability or worry about making mistakes because you might get dropped but Wayne said ‘you’re a good football player so back your ability’ and that has been good," Nicholls said.
"I have also settled down off the field with my missus, we’re getting married this year and talking about having a family, which I think has helped, but doing something completely different on my day off, meeting different people and getting out of the rugby league bubble has probably been good for my footy.
"I am putting my best foot forward on the field so I am hopeful of staying at Souths but I am doing some stuff off the field so that when the footy career ends I am more confident in the next phase of my life, knowing that I can handle a role in the commercial side of a football club."