There are also the Country Rugby League equivalents, the Laurie Daley and Andrew Johns cups, in the under-16s and under-18s age groups. These, too, have been lost for season 2020. These are important competitions for country kids. These competitions have also been a major part of the resurrection of junior rugby league in country areas. More on this another time, because it’s a terrific story.
Now, not all these kids will go on to be NRL footballers. These teams might be the best level of rugby league they ever get to play in their lives. They are special times for the young players and their families. It’s a season lost and will be a huge disappointment to many people.
It’s an important fact, though, that these competitions have always produced the vast majority of players who go on to play in the NRL.
The first order of business would be to change the age groups going forward, so the kids who have missed out on the opportunity this year get to play at this level of competition next season.
It’s a simple process. We just add one year to the current age restrictions. The junior competitions next year should be under-17s and under-19s, replacing the under-16s and under-18s.
It’s at this point that I would like to suggest we go a little further with the under-20s and make it an under-23s competition, like we used to have many decades ago. Regardless of what is happening this year, I have been advocating this for some time, as an important measure in improving the development pathways programs that eventually produce the vast majority of future NRL players.
It goes without saying that we continue with the open-age NSW Cup competition in its current form. This is the final testing ground for those players with the potential to play in the NRL. It is the premier player development competition in this country. It’s the place where NRL players go to play if they are not required by their NRL club for any particular weekend.
I would also humbly suggest to the NRL that if it has any desire to increase the size of this competition into other markets around the country and overseas, it needs to have its NRL clubs investing heavily in these pathways competitions to help give more kids an opportunity to develop and, ultimately, produce more NRL-standard players.
I’m confident that if they move to an under-23s competition – rather than under-20s – in conjunction with the open-age state cup competitions, over time that will produce an increase in the number of NRL standard players.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Junior league clubs, country rugby league clubs and, indeed, junior league and country rugby league competitions will be hurting badly as a result of this lost season. I would imagine that some clubs and some competitions may even be in danger of dying altogether. We can’t let this happen.
Junior league and country rugby league are the lifeblood of our game. Always have been. The future of rugby league will depend greatly on the time and money we invest in resurrecting, maintaining and even building these competitions.
Many of you will have heard the term “grassroots rugby league”. You ask 20 different people what the term means and I dare say you might get 20 very different answers.
For me, grassroots rugby league is just like the grassroots level of any sport in this country. It is essentially a volunteer system, which has sustained our game for more than 100 years. It’s a community of adults, giving of their time and passion to help provide organised junior sport for the children of this country. It includes the recreational and competitive forms of the sport that have become so popular with men, women and children of all ages. It extends through to the senior and open-age competitions.
Grassroots sport does not survive without the passion and energy of volunteers. They don’t ask for money or for thanks. What they do appreciate, though, is a little recognition and respect.
In today’s busy world, it’s hard to be a volunteer. People are time poor; even money poor. This is why it is imperative that NRL clubs are actively involved, not only in the development and maintenance of junior league clubs in the area, but also adopting country rugby league and regional zones where there is no immediate NRL club presence.
Without the investment of time and energy in these important grassroots areas, participation numbers will decline, we will lose clubs and competitions, and that will mean less kids coming through to our elite junior representative programs, which, ultimately, hurts the NRL in the long run.
In my time at Penrith, we invested heavily in developing the game and players in western Sydney, in our own junior rugby league boundaries and also in areas throughout western NSW. I could talk for hours about these programs and the outstanding job Panthers has done in resurrecting and building junior rugby league in these vital areas.
During this time, Panthers Academy has also produced more NRL-quality players than any other club. The Panthers’ top-30 squad has more players that made their debut for the club than any team in the NRL. There are more players who made their debut at Penrith playing with other NRL clubs than from any other club in the competition.
Through education and welfare programs, Panthers have also aided many young kids in graduating from school, completing apprenticeships, earning tertiary education qualifications, finding jobs and becoming better citizens. The vast majority of these kids will never play NRL football. The opportunity to play in these elite junior representative programs and be a part of Panthers Rugby League Academy has given them an education and opportunities in life.
The Panthers Academy, its football and education programs, its wider community and charitable programs, its school programs and its junior league management were funded completely by Panthers. They invested millions of dollars a year in the development of junior and country rugby league.
The NRL and ARLC reneged a number of times on the promises they made for financial support. The NRL and ARLC actually treated Panthers extremely poorly. However, this disappointment did not deter the Penrith board from continuing with its charter to invest in the development of the game.
I could write a book on this subject alone.
The Panthers Academy and the satellite programs that run throughout the Penrith Junior League and western NSW areas have been nothing short of an outstanding success. The model is a blueprint for the future of the game. Anyway, I never meant to talk about that today. I got side-tracked.
Back to my original point. The kids who should have been playing in our junior representative competitions in season 2020 should not miss out on this enjoyable and important time in their lives. We also don’t want this suspension of the game to adversely affect those who have the potential to go on to higher honours.
Let’s raise the age qualification for these elite pathway competitions for at least the next five years. The kids and their families will appreciate it. More importantly, the future of our NRL competition may well depend upon it.
Stay safe and healthy everyone. Don’t undo the great work you’ve been doing. Be patient.
Phil Gould is a League Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald