The Real Story About Junior Development

BY DR HERMAN

The Daily Telegraph recently published an article about how many National Youth Competition graduates each club had had since the competition began in 2008. One of the things that stands out is that the number of “graduates” does not equal success. This shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, winning an elite sporting competition relies on identifying freakishly talented outliers, not on producing numbers of mediocre players. It’s about identifying and signing the cream of the crop when they are young and cheap, not churning out lots and lots of NRL quality talents. Of course, churning out lots and lots of NRL quality talent should in theory give you an advantage, however that doesn’t seem to be the case.

There is likely a reason for that. Under the current system, it doesn’t really make sense to spend time investing lots of money in juniors to develop lots of average first-graders. Mediocre players don’t win premierships and are easy enough to sign from other clubs. You win premierships by picking up elite talent. The best place to do this currently is out of the under twenties competition, when the talent of players is more easily judged but before players have made first grade and cost more money to sign.

O'Sullivan's recruitment of juniors has been critical to the Roosters success.
O’Sullivan’s recruitment of juniors has been critical to the Roosters success.
This is the system that the Roosters have used to great effect. A large chunk of their side played their first NRL game at the club. Given how many of those players are now rep players that’s impressive. Guys like Guerra, Tupou, Friend, Pearce, Tuivasa-Sheck, Cornder, Napa, Evans, Elliot and the like all started in the NRL with the Roosters, 8 of those guys have played representative footy. There is no doubt about it, Roosters recruitment manager Peter O’Sullivan has done an exemplary job of developing top class talent in-house. Of course, only some of those players actually came through the Roosters’ juniors, while others were poached from other clubs’ youth sides, but whatevs.

South Sydney have utilised a similar formula. Walker, Johnston, Grey, Keary, Reynolds, McQueen, Sutton, Luke, George and Thomas Burgess, Grevsmuhl, Tyrell are all players who debuted for the club. Many of them have played rep football. Good development work Souths!

If we look back at the great teams of the last decade a pattern emerges, this strategy seems to be a pretty solid formula for success. Manly rose to the top on the back of first grade debutants like DCE, Foran, the Stewart brothers, Matai, Ballin, Buher. The Storm on the back of Cronk, Smith, Slater, Inglis, Folau, Browmich and the like.

All these sides were built primarily on players who debuted at the club, with a smattering of quality signings to complement the junior talent (e.g. Lyon, Inglis, Finch etc etc).

So it’s clear, being a great development club helps win premierships. Sort of, well not really. In all cases, what set those clubs apart is great talent identification and the ability to actually sign freakish talents at a young age. See a lot of players those clubs signedwere players that every club in the NRL had their eye on at the time. Because they were absolute freaks. Every club knew who Greg Inglis and IsraelFolau were before they signed with the Storm (they would have been number 1 draft picks). There were stories circulating about how great these kids would be at 14 FFS. Despite the myths, it was similar with Smith,Cronk and Slater, they weren’t “unwanted junior plucked from obscurity by the storm only to become one of the best players in the game” as per the myth. The truth is numerous clubs were after them. They signed with the Storm. The rest is history.

It didn't take a genius to know Greg Inglis would be good.
It didn’t take a genius to know Greg Inglis would be good.
Credit to Peter O’Sullivan. He is the king of this sort of thing and has done a flipping excellent job of it at both the Storm and the Roosters. Storm salary cap shenanigans aside anyway.

“But a lot of those players were signed from other clubs junior systems before they played first grade, we need junior concessions to make the system fairer. Clubs like the Warriors, Tigers, Eels and Raiders should be rewarded for all the great work they do developing juniors.”

Totally. That would help even up the spending on development across clubs, however, it would be unlikely to help those clubs become more successful. In terms of the elite talents, it would simply push back the competition for that talent. You see, you don’t need a strong junior system to sign “the cream”, you just need good scouts, an eye for talent and someone who can get backroom deals done. Lets be honest, a lot of the time you don’t even need the first two, many elite talents were widely identified as such well before they hit the National Youth Competition, well before any club managed to sign them.

Junior concessions would simply increase the demand for these players before they become “juniors”. It won’t fix the underlying problems. It would help offset some of the costs of running juniors for clubs with big, productive junior catchments as they churn out average player after average player which would be a good thing. But premierships aren’t built on those players. They are built on the outliers. If junior concessions do come in, making outliers harder to target at the under 20s level, the rich clubs will simply focus their attention on signing them before under 20s.

Prediction: It would simply lead to a lot more crazy situations like when Anthony Milford was signed by Canberra at 14.

So while it’s true that the current system puts an unfair burden on clubs with strong junior catchments when it comes to producing players and that we should probably do something about that, it’s unlikely to lead to a more even distribution of elite talents or a fairer competition. Change the rules and the rich clubs will simply adjust, the elite talents will keep flowing unevenly.

The only real way around it is to move to a system that equitably distributes the elite juniors across all clubs. That is a draft with restricted free agency.

What’s that, the sounds of Raiders supporters crying “but that would rob us of our one advantage, our strong junior system”? How well has that been working out for us guys? Premierships? Grand Finals? Ok Semi finals? No? Pretty successful tactic then.

The only premiership Raiders fans have seen in years was a junior competition.
The only premiership Raiders fans have seen in years was a junior competition.
The club understands this, they have publically stated that it is taking a step back from focussing on juniors given the poor return on investment. Which is an eminently sensible decision. The way the NRL works, it simply doesn’t make sense for clubs to spend money on wider junior development. The focus should be on identifying freakish talents and signing them young. If you can. That’s how you build a premiership winning team full of “juniors”.

A draft solves all these issues. It would necessitate the NRL taking over junior development, evening the junior investment across clubs. It would mean freakish juniors are more evenly distributed across clubs. Instead of the ability to make backroom deals with teenagers being the defining characteristic of a good recruitment manager, it would instead be the ability to identify and nurture talent that would be front and centre, which seems “better” to me. Restricted free agency would stop players developed by a club being poached just as they start to hit their stride. Lastly, having a draft where players had to be 18 to enter would stop stupid amounts of pressure being placed on 12, 14, 16 and 17-year-old kids, giving them time to mature. A draft makes sense.

Paradoxically, it seems to make most sense for a traditional “juniors” club like the raiders, who create plenty of first grade talent, but simply can’t compete with the top-tier clubs when it comes to signing and keeping freakishly talented kids.

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