Saving our potential
Phil Clarke believes the dual-registration system will end up chasing players away from rugby league.
Last Updated: 20/02/13 12:45pm
Much has been said about the pathway for potential in Rugby League recently i.e) the journey that a young player takes to reach the top of his game.
Most people will be aware that 'the game' (or should I say the majority of Super League clubs) has decided to replace a meaningful second team competition for Super League clubs with a system that's called Dual-Registration.
We haven't had a truly competitive Second Team competition for some time, but this is a giant step backwards.
Clubs now have a first team and an under-19 side and are allowed or encouraged to send some of their over-19 players to play for clubs in the Championship, either through an affiliation with a Championship club or via a month-long loan.
I thought it was a bad idea when I first heard about it, but never imagined it would go this wrong so quickly. At a time when we need more players to choose from, not less, we are in danger of turning people away from the game before they've made a start.
The strength of the Australia dollar in comparison to the English pound, plus the lure and attraction of the NRL, added to the wealth and opportunities of rugby union, means that we're going to struggle for players more than we ever have done in the last 100 years.
It's akin to development suicide, in my opinion, but my opinion isn't what I'm basing my argument on here. I've just finished reading a book called The Gold Mine Effect by Rasmus Ankersen and it's a tragedy that the people who voted to change the way that the best young players in this country develop as rugby league players didn't read it before their momentous decision.
Let me share with you some of the lessons that Rasmus uncovered as he travelled the world in search of the secrets of high performance (the trendy way of saying world-class training).
His journey began when he tried to predict who might be the best footballers in his Danish academy five years into the future. He and the other coaches, who were all well qualified and experienced people in football, tried to make an educated guess as to which of their players would progress to be professional ones.
They got it all wrong and tipped all of the players who didn't go on to play at the top level. The player that they thought had no chance of succeeding, Simon Kjaer, was the only one out of the group to 'make it' as we like to say in sport. It set Rasmus off on a mission to learn more about how sportsmen and women develop.
This brings us to the big question. What is talent and how do we identify it, and how can we grow it more effectively? (And with a better return on investment from a club's point of view?).
It's an issue that's discussed both in the boardrooms of Blue Chip companies and in rugby clubs across the world, and it's one that we need to do dramatically better if Super League clubs want to survive in an ever-competitive market place.
Please allow me to remind you of some sporting success that almost went unnoticed. For example, basketball player Michael Jordan at 16 years of age wasn't good enough to make his school team.
Asafa Powell, who set the 100m World Record of 9.77seconds in 2005 aged 22, had nowhere to train and no one to train with when he was 19 and could only run the distance in just less than 11 seconds.
Closer to home how many people are aware that Sam Tomkins was released by Wigan when he was 16. It is an amazing twist of fate that kept him there.
Are we guilty in rugby league of closing the trap door too early? How many players like Tomkins do we 'lose' because we tell them that they are not good enough when they are too young for us to really know?
Everyone in the sport is excited with the prospect of a World Club Challenge next weekend and the chance of seeing the Melbourne Storm in action. Arguably they have the best current coach in our sport, and yet he seems to be one of the few coaches who is prepared to give players a chance later in their careers.
He hasn't slipped into this mistaken mindset which says that if he hasn't 'made it' by the time he's 19 or 20 he never will. He recruits so-called rejects in their late 20s!
As someone who grew up playing in a highly competitive Wigan second team, which had some good young players, running alongside some older men who helped by acting as sparring partners, I am a firm believer that the best option for our sport was to have an under 23s competition as proposed by Jon Roberts at the RFL.
What's the point in having a Performance Director if you're not going to listen to his advice? Can you imagine us paying David Brailsford for his advice and then dismissing it!
I applaud the clubs in the Championship who have criticized the current plan. It fundamentally undermines the integrity of their competition and I'd be amazed if it exists in its current format next year.
What function or power do the RFL have if their recommendation is ignored? Are they a toothless tiger? I guess that's another question.
Chance to develop
The age structure of competitions isn't the biggest issue for me, as with the exception of a few clubs, we seem to think that the trap door for a place in Super League is 20 or below.
Some clubs might be able to justify this by saying that they don't get many players from their own academies after this age, but that's not evidence. They aren't even given a chance in a competition that allows them to develop.
We compare a 25-year-old NRL fringe member with a 20-year-old local youngster and fail to see the potential of the local player if he is given the best coaching and the time to develop.
Learning to play sport at the highest level is a bit like learning to walk; you'll manage a few steps before falling. Then you'll try again and probably knock the coffee table over and embarrass a few people before you eventually get the hang of it and hit full pace.
We have to remember the damage this current system could do to the game. Championship players work all week, train three or four times a week in the evening then miss out on a spot in the team because a Super League club wants one of their players to stay match fit. It's just not right.
How many players will drop out of the game, if they get released by a SL club at 19/20? Do they want to drop down into the Championship to then, potentially not get selected because of a Super League player dropping down, and therefore drop out of the game completely? It seems crazy to me.
We, or the clubs, spend time, money intellectual effort into their players from the ages of 15 to 20, then release them just as they are starting to reach the critical phase. At what age do the NFL recruit their players? Or worse still discard the ones that had a chance? Not before they've reached their physical maturity in their early 20s.
There are suggestions that because Super League standard players will be playing with and in the Championship it will increase the quality of the Championship, but it will take a massive shift for 'the game' to accept this and I can't see it happening.
Somebody needs to break up the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle, crunch the numbers, and put it back together again. It doesn't look right to me and could do irreparable damage to rugby league in the UK if we don't get this right.