The Melbourne Storm have created the most successful NRL dynasty in recent times and the inclusion of Dean Ieremia in their 2021 squad raises the prospect of another Melburnian making the grade.
But I can’t help but feel that, more than 20 years after their admission, we should be seeing more Victorians at the apex of the game.
Of course, Melbourne is AFL central, and breaking into this Storm squad is that much harder by virtue of their year-on-year success and world-class roster.
But even with that considered, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that grassroots development in the state has not exactly followed in the wake of elite success.
Some may question whether or not it’s actually necessary. Unless Dan Andrews takes his border restrictions to their conclusion and pushed for V-exit style independence, more Victorian talent won’t make a dent on the international game.
But if we want to sustainably maintain the current flow of top-quality NRL players, then junior and grassroots levels need to remain even, and what better place to make up for declining NSW numbers than in the hitherto untapped southern state?
However, it becomes that much harder to coerce kids onto a rectangle rather than an oval if the path to the top is unclear to the point of invisible. With the number of Victorian alumnae in the single figures, it’s not even a choice.
Any talented teen faced with the options of joining a Storm academy that is unlikely to see him or any of his peers make the cut, or junior AFL and the convenience of fixture locality, won’t think twice.
Can this be rectified? Again, not willing to downplay the significance of AFL domination, but if London can produce a continuous stream of (comparatively) top-level players on a fraction of the resources and infinitesimal exposure or sporting awareness in the English game, then of course it can be done.
London have produced grand final winners in Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Tony Clubb and Dan Sarginson. At the last World Cup, Hampshire-born Mike McMeeken represented England, while Victoria’s international representation has been limited to Tongan Mahe Fonua.
In a similar fashion, expect a hefty proportion of the Jamaica side at this year’s World Cup to be London developed.
All this has been achieved on a far smaller budget, with the prospect of relegation ever-looming, without backing from the governing authority, in an area populated by many that would be hard pressed to even acknowledge the existence of rugby league.
Inversely, it may be that such challenging circumstances allow for greater development. A smaller budget, coupled with the difficulty of convincing established northern players to relocate, necessitate the selection of young local players.
The answer obviously is not to weaken Melbourne to the point of reliance on untested youth (however much most other fans would like an uncompetitive Storm). What solutions are there, that can be meaningful formulated on a sports website?
There are no state competitions of any meaningful standard for developing players to fall back on should they not immediately make the cut (as exists with the NSW and Queensland Cups); perhaps the Storm should put some of their spare cash that is totally not going towards the salary cap to finance some second chances.
I sure as hell don’t have the answers – I’m not even sure if the powers that be see this as a problem, or at least an area for improvement.
But the potential is there and it can be exploited so as to mould a truly National Rugby League.