THIS week the NRL announced the formation of new state based competitions in NSW and Queensland in 2018 to replace the NYC as the game’s second-tier – and not a moment too soon.
In announcing the scrapping of the competition last month, ARLC chairman John Grant said the NYC set-up “asked too much if young players” and that it’s had “some disastrous outcomes.”
He was no doubt referring to the suicides in the junior ranks of the game that have rocked the rugby league world in recent seasons.
The pressure is not imagined. Players who dream their whole lives of playing in the NRL suddenly had two years to make it happen. If injury strikes in the year you turn 20, suddenly the deal is off the table and players are on the scrapheap at the age of 21.
For all the talk of ‘welfare’ offered to players within NRL clubs, these cast-offs get what we call in the trade ‘ sweet FA’. Most often not even so much as a follow-up phone call.
This columnist is in a unique position to analyse the system at work given I cover the Illawarra Coal League, Intrust Super Premiership and the NRL concurrently. I’ve seen plenty of former under 20s players rediscover their passion and love for game in the Illawarra league – most tellingly under the guidance of older players – after being discarded from the under 20s system.
Game On spoke to one this week in Chris Lewis who is one of four players to earn full-time contracts with the Dragons on the back of the Illawarra Cutters premiership and national championship success last season.
Before that he had a stint in the Coal League, where he won the 2015 premiership Helensburgh, before making his way into the Cutters system and ultimately the NRL squad. At 25 he said he’s far better equipped to handle the NRL rigours after a horrendous injury run stole his under 20s window with the Dragons back in 2011.
“[the change] gives kids a chance to be kids I think,” he told Game On.
“A lot of my friends from 20s are finished and have lost faith in the game. You were expected to be a professional at 17-18-19 and most people aren’t not ready to be a professional at that age.
“You’re not going to be as physically or mentally developed as you are at 24-25 and most guys need that time. I think the move back to the state comps will give that back.”
The fact is the NYC was brought in to fix a system that wasn’t broken. In 2007, Penrith won the last Jersey Flegg (under 20s) premiership. Local juniors Michael Jennings, Tim Grant, Joseph Paulo, Wade Graham, Masada Iosefa and Jarrod Sammut all featured in the competition that season.
They all progressed to the NRL and signed their big deals in due course.
A year later, with the coming of the NYC, the Panthers signed 17-year-old Greg Waddell on a six-figure deal despite the fact he was yet to even play under 20s football, let alone NRL football.
It pales in comparison to the millions the Knights have thrown at young-gun Kayln Ponga this week but it was the richest deal any club had made with a teenager at the time.
Over at Cronulla, the Sharks thought it wise to throw $600,000 at an untested youngster named Karl Filiga.
Player managers eyes lit up, suddenly their clients didn’t even need to be proven to command big dollars (and seven and a half per cent) to play in this new whiz-bang national competition
Filiga’s eventual NRL career amounted to eight minutes before he was released on “compassionate grounds” with the pressure of that monstrous deal likely playing a part. Waddell never played in the NRL.
It’s not a knock on either player, who would turn down that amount of money at 20? But those contracts for players yet to even taste NRL action were an indication of the insanity that was to come.
For many, a return to legitimate ‘reserve grade’ competitions in 2018 is a restoration of the natural order – it’s really a return to sanity.