Round one of the NRL season was filled with the usual hype and excitement for the young players making their debuts, and there was probably plenty of backslapping for the job that the Toyota Cup is doing in continuing to produce the next “superstars” of the NRL.
Once the reality of first grade set in the were probably more wake-up calls in the form of dropped balls and missed tackles than there were headlines screaming “the next big thing.”
What I’ll argue is that this is no fault of the players. They are young and we, as the media and fans, probably ask too much of them.
Secondly, the system in place does not provide them with the best platform to compete at NRL level.
Fans and the media have an insatiable hunger for the next hero. Benji Marshall is still in his formative years yet we’ve already seen team mates Robert Lui and Ben Murdoch cited as the next Benji and there was a collective wetting of pants when they signed his younger brother, with gasps that “he is even better.”
Sam Burgess’ younger brother George is naturally expected to be every bit as good as his big brother.
Every time a player carves it up in Under 20’s there is the expectation that they’ll do exactly the same in the later kick off.
This is the message the player gets from his mates, his family, and undoubtedly his manager. Look out the coach who declares they may need to spend a few seasons roughing it with the Auburn Warriors or Redcliffe Dolphins before making that jump.
The jolting reality is dominating Under 20’s is dominating in your age group and the NRL is a whole another planet.
The National Youth Cup (NYC) has been a great product for Fox Sports and is an important junior pathway, but I firmly believe that it needs to be changed to include players up to the age of 24. Basically,, we need to reinstate the old reserve grade. This is as much for the players as it is for the clubs.
Bulldogs recruitment manager Peter Mulholland said something eminently sensible on Monday (the sort of thing you’d expect from a former school teacher) when asked about young prop Sam Kaisano.
“It’s early days,” Mulholland told the Sydney Morning Herald. ”If he had had a season of reserve grade instead of under 20s maybe that would be different but we’ve got to remember it’s an age competition he’s been playing in.
In other words, had he dominated reserve grade as much as he had the NYC then there would be real excitement as it stood there was still a real unknown quantity with his debut.
Should that be the case with our elite competition? Isn’t there a better way to groom our players.
A report (admittedly gathering dust) came out in early 90’s showed categorically that players in a development system which lasted until they were 23 produced twice as many players whose first grade careers were longer.
So by being able to hold a player back, you aren’t cheating him of a career as some would have you believe but rather increasing the chances of them having a longer one.
The Bulldogs lineup offers to other excellent examples.
Ben Barba was hailed as the game’s next superstar in the inaugural NYC in 2008.
Since then, the Bulldogs coaching staff have faced enormous criticism from fans and the media as they tried to gently bring Barba into first grade. The coaches eased him off the bench and sent him out to the NSW Cup to “toughen up” (read: learn to tackle).
It’s now 2011 and Barba looks every bit as exciting as he did back then, but more a developed product.
One recruitment manager at another Sydney club confided in me that had Barba been tossed into first grade as he was in 2008, it was unlikely he’d still be around today. Chewed up and spat out.
So it’s a credit to the Dogs staff for persisting with patience, but imagine how much easier it would have been had their feeder league been a better funded, high profile league with a few more hard heads to keep the kids in line.
Jake Foster is another example.
Foster had a number of years in the twilight zone between Under 20s and First Grade and its testament to his persistence that he has hung there for a crack at the NRL.
Too many players slip through the cracks once they find themselves floating around the state leagues. This is especially so when we are talking about forwards, who tend not to reach their peak until they are 26 or 27. Why bin them then at 21?
Sure you will always get the superstars who can play NRL from 19 or 20 and that is fine, but for the majority of young players having a level which continues there development until they are at least 24 would do them and therefore the game a huge service.
Surely viewers would not switch off from the NYC because lo and behold that player was all of 23!
There is another argument for an older group of players within a club and that is to provide a mentoring role for the younger blokes coming through.
Having a few extra players who have been around the block can surely only help dilute the fantasy world that many players find themselves in and which brings them unstuck once a few beers come into the equation.
I’m not going to carp on about the good ol’ days, but must be worth considering seeing player behaviour is such an important area to manage for any club.
I get as excited about the young rookie as much as the next man. I just enjoy it more when they reach ten years in the NRL.