Is the NRL’s youth development program failing young hopefuls? James Wardell ponders the alternatives.
Daniel Ezekiel still remembers his first game in the Under 20s competition like it was yesterday. Fronting up for the Sydney Roosters against Newcastle, a team who the year before featured in the grand final, he was a bundle of nerves. He recalls how his side won the toss to receive the kick off and, after a good set of six with hit ups hard enough to rattle your ancestors, the young half was called upon to make an attacking kick into Newcastle’s corner. With a hard chase he began to settle into the rhythm of the game, feeling right at home among this group of league’s young elite, doing what he loves.
“Although we ended up losing the match I will never forget the feeling of playing in front of big crowd like that, it was such a rush,” Ezekiel recalls.
But moving from the age-restricted group into the open-age reserve-grade saw him playing bigger, stronger, older players. It was a baptism of fire. His boyhood dream of playing first grade was never realised, with selectors cherry picking the most promising young players from the under 20s over the men in the reserves.
With club memberships growing every year and an increase of funds provided by a new broadcast deal, the National Rugby League will be looking to develop more young stars than ever, but many have questioned whether the current pathways model is adequate, even betraying the young players.
Introduced in 2008, the Holden Cup is the Under 20s Rugby League National Youth Competition. It is designed to nurture future stars that have come through the representative ranks in state-based competitions before transitioning to the NRL. The system affords each club a salary cap of $250,000 to divide between 25 players. It has served many players well, with modern-day stars such as Adam Reynolds, Daly Cherry-Evans, Nathan Cleary, David Klemmer and Tyson Frizell cutting their teeth in the Under 20s comp.
For players who reach the age of 21 and don’t get selected for first grade, they can elect to go into an open-age reserve-grade system. These players can still move up into first grade along with the Under 20s players, however, with both Under 20s and reserve grade competitions running side by side, many of the top-ranking players don’t get the chance to play against one another. Critics of the system claim the separate competitions create an unfair playing environment, which results in a skewed selection process. It is not always the best players getting picked to play in the top division with the reserve grade players often overlooked while the Under 20s players romp into the first grade.
Despite its flaws, NSWRL CEO Dave Trodden believes the Under 20s competition has a firm position in the modern game.
“There will always be a need for an Under 20s competition because of the age difference, as most players don’t have the characteristics required to play in an open-aged competition, especially the physicality aspect, except for a few who are ready for NRL,” Trodden told the Newsroom.
However, Mr Trodden admitted that financial considerations would likely result in major bodies restructuring the current system.
“After a review of the NYC it will be changed into a state-based Under 20s competition because the current system is not economically viable for the NRL clubs, and the proposed changes will save millions to increase expenditure into development pathways.”
Despite the proposed improvements, many people within the code think there’s a better solution, such as the AFL’s drafting system, which is praised for its simple approach and straightforward pathway into first grade. In contrast to the NRL’s model, which continues to use age-determined development pathways, the AFL has five state-based competitions and, from those competitions, players are “drafted” into the league.
David Conway represented his state in AFL four times in the Under 15s, 16s, 17s and 18s at the national championships, captaining and winning the best player award from NSW/ACT as well as the championship’s rising star award.
“The draft system is a better and fairer pathway into the first grade competition because the best of the best are playing against each other, which allows all players equal opportunity to be picked for skill and potential talent,” he told the Newsroom.
“For example, only a couple of years ago an elder player was drafted and won a medal which might not have happened if it wasn’t for the draft to provide that opportunity.”
Morgan Stevens, a former South Sydney Rabbitoh’s NYC player who currently plays for the Asquith Magpies in the Ron Massey Cup, believes the current Under 20s system is actually beneficial for the players and the clubs and not a broken system which needs fixing.
“You start to train at elite levels and you are surrounded by staff and coaches that have a job to get you into first grade, so they have to perform just as much as the players,” he said.
“So there is a tougher approach altogether trying to crack kids into first grade.”
Mr Stevens ultimately left the club because he “wasn’t enjoying footy anymore”, struggling to cope with double sessions morning and night and working in between. Still, he would prefer the current system over a draft system.
“I like the fact that you have to work for what you want, even if you’re a high-demand player. You should also have the choice as to where you would like to play (rather than being drafted),” he said.
One concern about the NYC as a professional pathway is the fact the young players plucked straight from Under 20s into first grade are forced to quickly adapt to playing against grown men in peak physical condition.
Unlike reserve-grade players, who are accustomed to playing men of all ages, NYC players face increased physicality and a higher risk of injury.
Daniel Ezekiel played for the Sydney Roosters Under 20s team before moving up to join the Canterbury Bulldogs and Cronulla Sharks in reserve grade stints.
“It (the NYC) sort of developed my game because you were playing with talented players and against other talented players but in terms of the physical aspect I think I needed to be playing bigger guys week-in and week-out,” he told The Newsroom.
“When I turned 21, I played a bit of Premier League (reserve grade) and it wasn’t the same. Which is why I think it should be (under) 21, 22 or 23s to keep guys in the game longer and let the physicality thing draw out, then you will really see players shine.”
Players who find themselves dumped into the state-based reserve grade competitions also often find themselves overlooked when it comes to selection. Mr Ezekiel explained the reason clubs overlooked reserve grade players was because they wanted the next big thing, a young star. He said rugby league was run like a business, a profit-generating machine; so clubs want to sign exciting young players rather than steady reserve grade players. This creates an ineffective pathway as the most talented players may be overlooked when they’re considered “too old”, according to Mr Ezekiel.
Not that he is bitter. These days Mr Ezekiel focuses more on practising law than practising his ball skills, but is still a die hard fan of rugby league; and he loves seeing young stars like Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic make it through to the NRL, living out their dreams. They’re dreams he can relate to, but for the sake of the next up-and-comings he, and many others, would like to see the league consider an alternative approach. – James Wardell.
Top photo of 18-year-old young gun Nathan Cleary scoring against the Roosters from Big League’s Facebook page.