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New season, new team, Newcastle: Splurge spells trouble for junior development

Knights coach Nathan Brown. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Expert
12th March, 2018
72

What a magical start to the season for the Newcastle Knights.

In front of a throbbing crowd of over 23,000 expectant Novocastrians, the Knights kicked off their 2018 campaign in fairy-tale fashion.

With only moments remaining in golden point extra time and with the contest in the balance, it felt fitting that the ball should find its way to Newcastle’s greatest import since Harry’s Cafe de Wheels – Mitchell Pearce.

The captain calmly slotted the winning field goal, and was quickly enveloped by a joyous sea of red and blue. The sight of grown men throwing themselves at Pearce like they were auditioning for Australian Spartan was a special moment for the club and for a fan-base that’s been starved of success in recent seasons.

But in between the tears of joy and texts from overexcited friends, one thought kept niggling away in the back of my mind – it should have been Brock Lamb taking that field goal. After enduring season after season of misery, it should’ve been Lamb winning that game and celebrating that moment with his teammates.

Unfortunately, the Knights couldn’t sit back and allow their Lamb to rest for any longer. They needed a halfback capable of owning those key moments, and Brock simply wasn’t there yet. And he’s not alone. A quick check of Newcastle’s Round 1 line-up in 2017 reveals that only six players from that squad made the Knights top 17 for their opening round encounter against Manly on Friday evening.

When Nathan Brown was first announced as the new coach, he promised to rebuild the club by utilising the region’s rich junior catchment. During his introductory press conference, Brown said:

“The big key is to build from the bottom up and introduce some good young players… Hopefully over three years’ time we gain some consistency and have got a squad that’s consistent and a good young squad that’s built up with a good portion of local players and also some people from outside.”

So what’s changed? After investing three long years into developing local talent, why have the Knights seemingly abandoned their strategy?

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Newcastle Knights

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The reality is that this approach is no longer viable in the modern game. Unlike the early ’90s, when teams like the Canberra Raiders and Brisbane Broncos could stockpile talent like Manchester City, the NRL salary cap is simply not equipped to reward teams for developing their own players.

You see it all the time – a team invests years’ worth of time, energy and resources in nurturing a young player and bringing him through the junior grades, only to see a cashed-up club like the Roosters swoop in and steal him away.

So why should clubs bother in the first place?

That seems to be the general sentiment throughout the NRL, with more and more clubs forgoing significant investment in this area. Newcastle certainly aren’t the only club to abandon the home-grown approach. Junior development was the cornerstone of Phil Gould’s five-year plan at Penrith, the general manager vowing to “overhaul a system that failed to take advantage of the biggest rugby league nursery in the country”.

For the first few years, Gus held firm to his word. He blooded fresh talent left and right, and was rewarded with some promising results. But over the last 18 months, the Panthers have strayed from this path.

The club has been more and more active in the player market, and with the release of high-profile juniors Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright, the bulk of Penrith’s salary cap is now allocated to players born and bred beyond the Blue Mountains.

It was the same story at the Wests Tigers. For years the club stood behind its junior development policy, and in James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses, Luke Brooks and Aaron Woods, the proof was in the pudding. But when it came time for the Big Four to recommit to the club, the players bolted for greener pastures while the Tigers’ cheese was left out in the wind. As a result, the Tigers were among the most active participants in the player market over the off-season.

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(Photo: AAP)

And how about the Canberra Raiders? For years the Green Machine have proudly proclaimed themselves as a junior development club, yet a quick look at their roster shows more foreign talent than a Friday night at Scruffy Murphy’s. The truth is that Canberra invested heavily in their junior system only to watch the likes of Josh Dugan, Anthony Milford, Joel Monaghan and William Zillman take up opportunities elsewhere.

So while it hurts to see home-grown talent like Danny Levi, Brock Lamb and the Saifiti twins no longer in the starting line-up, that’s life in today’s NRL. There’s simply no incentive for developing young players when you can just as easily save your money and poach them from your rivals.

Nathan Brown and the Knights must do whatever it takes to be successful, even if that means breaking a few promises along the way. And based on what I witnessed against the Sea Eagles on Friday night, the club’s finally on the right track. I only wish it hadn’t taken them three consecutive wooden spoons to get there.

Fifth Tackle Option
Here are five quick thoughts on the action from Round 1.

1. There’s really no excuse for the epidemic of handling errors on display over the weekend. I understand that it’s Round 1 and players need to build up their match fitness, but these blokes have been in pre-season training since Christmas. Not good enough.

2. The performances of Moses Mbye and Cameron Munster were simply breathtaking. The opposing fullbacks were electric every time they touched the football. It’s not often that Josh Jackson is found wanting in defence, but Munster made the Canterbury captain look like a blue and white version of James Maloney on more than one occasion.

3. Calm down Roosters fans. Even Jordan Spieth shanks his tee shots occasionally.

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4. Not sure what to make of that performance by Parramatta. The Eels exploded out of the blocks and looked poised to rack up a cricket score against the Panthers. But then a combination of ill-discipline and basic handling errors invited Penrith back into the contest. Parramatta have a cracking squad this season, but these sort of mental lapses are what sets the Eels apart from the top teams like the Melbourne Storm.

5. Good on Stephen Kearney. His side has copped an absolute pasting from the media this off-season, with most believing they’re destined for the wooden spoon. But if the Warriors can keep up the form they showed South Sydney, they’re an outside chance of pushing for a top-eight berth. I hope Kearney gets a chance to sit back and enjoy the moment.