Junior focus aimed at long-term retention

RUGBY LEAGUE

Illawarra District Rugby League manager Chris Bannerman believes a restructure of the Illawarra's junior ranks will increase the number of players filtering into top grade.

The Illawarra Coal League has struggled with a player drain in recent seasons that has seen the competition reduced to just six senior teams in 2014.

The reduction in player numbers has extended to the under-18s competition, with only five teams contesting the 2013 premiership.

The decline has prompted the board of management to implement a colts (under 19s) division and under 17s division for the 2014 season in place of the traditional under-18s competition.

Bannerman believes new age divisions will help retain players at the stage they are often lost to the game and see more players graduate to seniors.

"The two points where you traditionally lose a lot of kids is at that jump from 16s to 18s and again from 18s into grade," Bannerman said.

"This will hopefully give those kids coming out of the 16s that are worried about making that jump to 18s another year in the game.

"Then if you give the kids who may have pulled the pin after 18s because they were worried about playing against men another year in the game, maybe they'll get a bit bigger and stronger and they'll be more inclined to have a crack at grade."

So far Thirroul, Dapto, Collegians, Wests and Corrimal have indicated they will field a colts side in 2014, with Helensburgh also potentially entering a side.

Thirroul, Wests, Helensburgh, Woonona-Corrimal, Dapto and Collegians have all nominated under-17s sides, with Port Kembla also looking at the possibility.

"On the surface of it you'd have to say it's a success already because we've got six or seven teams of footballers we might not have had this year," Bannerman said.

"It will take a little bit of time to see the benefits of any structural change but the league is committed to seeing it as a trial for three years.

"I think this transition year is going to be the hardest but if we have some success it augurs well for the next couple of years and hopefully we see an increase in retention rates over those age groups.

"We want as many kids playing this game as possible and we'd like to see clubs rewarded for the effort they put into producing kids through their junior ranks."

Nominations in both divisions close on March 3.

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