Staying there and surviving is another thing altogether but kids are getting opportunities these days long before they deserve them. Too many players arrive in the top flight on the back of one or two strong skills but with major shortcomings in other areas. This mentality produces footballers that are not mentally as developed as other sporting codes.
The NRL prides itself on being one of the toughest professional sporting leagues in the world and it would be hard to argue with that as a whole but more needs to be done to weed out the players that don’t have it or at least need to hone their all-round games more before being ready for first grade.
Players are being selected at times because they are the best option for a particular coach not because they are necessarily ready for that level. There is a clear and distinct difference between the two.
Let’s use the Warriors as an example over the past four seasons. I could rattle off probably a dozen names of players that have been handed a first grade jumper when they had glaring holes in their game. Konrad Hurrell, Ken Maumalo, David Fusitua, Glen Fisiahi, Agnatius Paasi, Solomone Kata, Siliva Havili, John Palavi, Suaia Matagi, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Charlie Gubb, Sam Lousi, Omar Slaimankhel, Carlos Tuimavave, Tuimoala Lolohea, Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Ngani Laumape would comprise an entire 17-man squad that were handed first grade debuts when they were still some way from being a complete package. Now many of these players were always going to be first grade quality at some point but they all could have done with some more development before getting their chance.
The Under 20s competition has provided a lot of positive development but the one thing we can now safely say after the best part of a decade of its operation is that the gap between graduating from Under 20s to making a first grade debut is too wide in almost all cases. There needs to be a level in between for promising youngsters to match up against fully grown and seasoned professionals. A place where their shortcomings are exposed more and can be remedied before finding out at first grade level. A second-tier competition is required whether that be in the form of the old reserve grade competition or in a separate feeder competition.
I am a big baseball fan and that sport has one of the toughest ascents to the top level. It weeds out those that don’t have the talent but more importantly it weeds out those that are not fully committed mentally. The best prospects are drafted out of college or high school and then spend at least two or three seasons honing their craft in the minor leagues before being brought up. In the majority of cases, that honing period is more like four or five years. During that time kids come up against senior pros on the way back from injury or those that are nearing the ends of their careers. They run into players that have the mental application but lack the natural talent to be a major league player. Those challenges are often the best way for a young player to learn and develop. They get the lessons without the highly public scrutiny that they’d get the next level up. If a kid is prepared to go through those years of hard slog just to get their chance the more likely they are to be ready for it and to treasure it.
It is no use having all the natural ability in the world if you don’t know how to tap into it. It is no use having talent but not the discipline to showcase it properly. It is no use scoring tries at a rate of knots but letting them in just as quickly. Going through a tougher development process would eliminate a lot more of that. If we go back to my list of Warriors debutantes over the past four seasons only three or four at best will be bonafide first grade players to begin next season. The rest have either not made it or are still trying to get there.