How the NRL is holding us to ransom over the National Youth Competition

For the past eight seasons, the NRL’s National Youth Competition (NYC) has been at the vanguard of junior player development. The new broadcast rights deal will however, bring an end to the competition responsible for identifying and facilitating the games most promising under 20 talent.

The competition has long found censure in regards to its substandard quality. Score lines are a case in point. Many concede that in a majority of cases the NYC leaves players ill-equipped and unprepared for the rigours of the big time in the NRL – particularly anent defensive structures and general toughness. The concern is that these defensive inadequacies, contracted in the U20’S, will filter into the first grade arena and infect its laudatory standard.

Game quality aside, the financial burden on both the NRL and its subsidiaries is arguably the greatest drawback of the NYC. Exorbitant running costs associated with interstate travel and accommodation, not to mention player and staff wages, are significant financial blows for NRL clubs to incur, particularly given that the competition offers little return on investment – monetarily speaking. Television and sponsorships are the only viable sources of income.

Finance and player development have become mutually exclusive in the NYC, effectuating a catch 22 situation for NRL clubs. In this case, without a short-term investment in the U20’s, the long-term gain of a talented youngster retained in the wings for first-grade is forfeited. This is a hefty fee to pay for an investment fraught with instability, particularly in an age of market volatility and third party agreements. Keeping a player resolute to a club’s mantra in the face of a large pay rise is especially difficult for a club with little capital inflow. For instance, indigent clubs like the Newcastle Knights and Gold Coast Titans were ranked 12th and 13th respectively in terms of developing the greatest number of first grade players from the NYC in a 2015 report.

Unremunerative investments have unearthed further complications for the NYC. For a long period of time, an investment in the U20’s was nugatory and counterproductive for clubs like the Melbourne Storm. They yielded very few players directly from the NYC, as their U20’s side churned out players for the Cronulla Sharks’ NSW cup affiliate club across six years of the competition. This issue has become less prevalent across the recently concluded seasons.

These ideologies aren’t empty platitudes, they are genuine concerns for a schismatic competition. One that appears boundless on paper, yet is frivolous and flawed in actuality. One that, most importantly, is moving inexorably towards a foregone conclusion – the demise of the NRL’s most pragmatic junior Rugby League pathway. Pragmatic in the sense that imitating the NRL’s framework deals with reality, as well as the pit falls and plateaus of being a professional Rugby League player – training, travel, nutrition, media work and team camps. It just so happens that some of the perks associated with operating a competition of the NYC’s magnitude are simultaneously cracking open the nest egg of clubs which are struggling financially.

Despite the costs, we should still lend credence to a competition that has uncovered innumerable diamonds in the rough for the NRL. Throughout its eight years of operation to date, the NYC has provided us with a product that is fundamentally accessible – both for clubs and the public – and a means by which to assess the next crop of footballing maestros. The NYC’s alumni roll is vastly populated. In its inaugural season alone, the competition exposed some of the current day superstars; Trent Merrin, Ben Hunt, Ben Barba, Wade Graham and Gareth Widdop to name but a few. By removing the NYC, surely we are removing an essential bridge to first grade and compromising the health of the NRL over the succeeding decades. Despite these frequently expressed advantages, any and all approbation of this competition is rapidly eroding. With every season come further calls for its neck by the Rugby League fraternity, effectively blunting the cogency of any counter argument. I for one, wholeheartedly agree that this competition, while having served as an essential breeding ground for some time, is in need of a seismic overhaul in order to address both the financial and logistic concerns that are ubiquitous under the current system.

An ostensibly enhanced nine-week competition played across state lines in lieu of the Holden Cup looms as the most likely avenue for the NRL to take following the implementation of the next broadcast rights deal.

If the NRL were to sketch up a blueprint of objectives and requirements for an ideal NYC, they would be sure to appease any criteria pertaining to the enhancement of game quality. Without this, we are left with a competition that is ultimately sterile, commercially unattractive and unproductive in the physical and mental development of players. That’s why a nine-week competition, while addressing the financial disquietudes, will repeat the failings of the NYC in terms of player development. It’s why any future competition must be played statewide – independent of the NRL clubs – thus acting as a feeder competition for the QLD and NSW cups. This will allow young players, specifically forwards, to learn the ropes and complete their Rugby League apprenticeships against seasoned pros. It’s why there must be a steady progression and perspicuous understanding of the stepping stones between each of the S.G. Ball, Harold Matthews, U20’s and QLD/ NSW cups. A clear-cut pathway will ensure fewer players – primarily those that are underdeveloped – don’t fall victim to the endemic flaws of the system, particularly during years when walking away from the game appears the most rational option.

Whatever you make of the current format and its logistical deficiencies, by no means should an U20’s competition be eradicated. The NRL has not yet succumbed to its steady disillusionment with the NYC, but it’s doing everything it can to hold us to ransom over it, while simultaneously spurring on our intolerance of it. These players are the future and the lifeline of the NRL. They must be treated accordingly, through the implementation of a sustainable Rugby League breeding ground that favours and prioritises their development.

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