Talking RL: Clubs need to invest in running youth teams

Prop Joe Bretherton
Prop Joe Bretherton

Imagine, for a minute, being a rugby league player.

Imagine, for a minute, being a rugby league player.

One who has already played a few games for Wigan’s first-team this year.

You’re fully-fit but, right now, you know you’ll probably not play a competitive match for at least six months.

Your crime?

Being 20-years-old.

That’s the scenario facing a clutch of fringe players at present.

Too old for the Under-19s, they can’t play for lower-league clubs on dual-registration, either.

Last week, for example, prop Joe Bretherton was in action for Workington at York on Sunday, while centre Liam Forsyth and forward Callum Field were playing for Swinton.

But under the rules, presumably made to prevent clubs from abusing the system during the high-stakes of the Super-8s, the option of flitting week-to-week between clubs stops.

Shaun Wane could let them leave for the rest of the year.

But, of course, he can’t risk leaving himself without cover in case injuries or suspensions bite into his first-team squad.

Of course, if there was a proper reserve league, this wouldn’t be a problem.

But there isn’t.

Only a handful of clubs - Wigan, Hull, Warrington and St Helens - choose to run a second-string on a flexible basis. Currently, there are only two fixtures - both friendlies - scheduled between now and the end of the season.

I’m told the club are trying to arrange a couple more but, as it stands, there are two matches. Both friendlies.

One next month, one in September.

So not only does a player like Bretherton not get a chance to catch Wane’s eye in a match, even if he was recalled to the first-team, he wouldn’t be match-ready.

I’ve asked RFL chief Nigel Wood about this.

He said he would prefer top-flight clubs to run academies and reserves, but the clubs - or, at least, the majority - voted against it.

For Leeds, with Bradford and Featherstone on the doorstep, the system works well. Others, though, made the decision to save money.

Two clubs don’t even have Under-19s sides.

And, honestly, part of me doesn’t blame them - of course they’re going to look after their own interests.

Which is why this issue needs to be taken out of the clubs’ hands.

If the RFL can make it a requirement of Super League that clubs have welfare officers and press officers and lord knows what else, surely they can make it compulsory to develop players.

Even if the reserves takes another guise (and personally, I never saw an issue with an U21s which allowed three open-age players, with a U18s below it).

Compel them to invest in youth or, if that doesn’t work, reward those who do with ring-fenced investment.

We all know, because of finances, the competition doesn’t attract stars from union anymore and it struggles to get the best from the NRL. So we have a great opportunity to fill that void with more homegrown players, and yet we allow their development to be stifled by a ridiculous system which shames the sport.

It’s time for the governing body to show some governance on the issue.

Rob Burrow has announced he will hang up his boots at the end of the season.

He has been one of my favourite Super League players. And not for his excitement, acceleration or - as Eddie Hemmings repeatedly, annoyingly puts it - his scampering runs.

But for his toughness.

Last Thursday night, there was a moment in the first-half when Tony Clubb took a carry, Ashton Sims whacked him, and I thought: “If that was me, I’d be lying on the couch for three days afterwards.”

Most rugby league players have a higher pain-threshold than most of us.

So for Rob Burrow to play on that stage - at his size - shows how hard tough he is.

I must admit, the Toronto Wolfpack experiment was a bit too left-field for me.

But my problem with rugby league is it doesn’t push the boundaries enough, so I hoped they did well, and it’s pleasing to see they’ve delivered on all of their promises so far.

They’ve had terrific media coverage, and their crowd of 7,247, for the visit of Hemel Stags, was even bigger than the gate which watched Castleford’s top-three clash with Salford on Friday (7,094).

I can’t shake a nagging scepticism about their long-term viability but, keep this up, and I might be able to.

Wigan’s attack has come under sharper scrutiny following their failure to score in a drab second-half against Warrington.

Everyone is in agreement: it was poor.

The quality across the board was low. Wire deserved the win - but only because they weren’t as bad!

But if you labour over an issue too much, you lose sight of other problems.

Like losing 50-34 at Leigh... and then debating George Williams’ poor goal-kicking.

Really? Wigan have just leaked 50 points at Leigh, and you want to talk about goal-kicking!?

But that’s what happened (thankfully, it’s no longer an issue). And if the debate after the Wire loss is blinkered to their attack, it overlooks other sins: 11 errors, 13 penalties conceded, poor kick-defence (again), poor clearing kicks, lost rucks... all of which, of course, feed into what position, and how much energy, Wigan have when they come to attack!

Everyone has their own yardsticks of what they find ‘acceptable’. I thought Wigan started brightly, especially the left-edge, and there have been flashes of quality since; their strong finish against Catalans, in a 32-10 win, was encouraging.

But I do think some need to realise there are - and I hate this phrase, but it’s appropriate - different ways to skin a cat.

It’s no secret Wigan base their game on a solid defence.

I sense they would take a World Club Challenge-type win - 22-6 - over winning 52-36 any day of week.

Right now, I’m more concerned with the result, than the style. It’s no exaggeration to say the next 10 days will shape their season.

Lose to Leeds, and it will put a huge, huge dent into their top-four hopes. Lose to Salford next week, and they certainly won’t be going to Wembley for another year.

Wigan appeared to be making progress since key players like John Bateman, Sam Tomkins and Sean O’Loughlin returned to the side.

I was hugely encouraged by the manner, and margin, of their 32-10 win at Catalans.

But no doubt, last week’s loss to Warrington was a step back.

Whether that result will go down as a blip on the campaign depends on what happens next.

Wigan’s last six matches have been against sides in the bottom-half of the ladder. Their next two are against sides currenly 2nd and 3rd.

Victories would not only keep alive their hopes of more silverware this season; it would show they have the credentials to do it, too.

Many of the heroes of Wigan’s epic World Club Challenge win against Manly reunited last weekend for a dinner to celebrate the 30-year anniversary.

I know Shaun Wane was gutted he couldn’t attend following hip surgery, and I’m told Shaun Edwards was disappointed a changed flight prevented him being there.

Coach Graham Lowe also wanted to go, but was unable to on the advice of doctors. But he did send a letter, which was read out at the dinner and, by the end, there were a few teary eyes.

I’ve reproduced it here in full:

It is with total sadness and regret I am not able to make it up there to help you celebrate this wonderful occasion.

Unfortunately, because my health is not as good as it could be at the moment I can’t take the risk of the long flight to and from New Zealand.

But it only seems like yesterday when, in the Boars Head celebrating after we’d won the League, Maurice Lindsay asked me how I thought we would go against the best Australian club team of the time - their Grand Final winner.

I told Maurice I thought we’d beat any team anywhere in the world.

A few more vodka and tonics and I’d convinced Maurice to call Ken Arthurson, who was chairman of the Australian Rugby League, to see if we could set such a game up.

Maurice was easily able to deal with a couple of hurdles that may have been in the way and that was it, the game was on.

Maurice is a great man whom we all owe a huge debt of thanks. A visionary like Maurice comes along once in a lifetime, what a man and a great friend. Wigan’s leading thinking and vision at that time created the World Club competition, which is now as important as test matches on the international calendar.

On the night of the game our team, led by Ellery, were magnificent. I’d suggested to the players we just walk slowly out on to the field at Central Park and I can still see it happening. We wanted to keep Manly waiting and p**s them off - it worked.

Ellery Hanley led our team out from the tunnel walking slowly and looking every bit confident, and that brought the massive crowd to a crescendo of noise - Manly wondered what they had struck!

It was a very tough and sensational game and I thank each and every one of the players - I love them all to this day.

I wish I was there to hug and kiss each one of these players because they gave me so much.

I was never once ever let down by a Wigan player, I loved them and they knew it. I still do!

And to the fans, what such fantastic people you are, I miss you every day of my life.

The only reason I resigned from Wigan was that I needed to be back in Australia to help one of my daughters, who was having trouble at school.

In years since, I’ve offered to come back to Wigan, but times change and I understand.

Finally I’d like to thank my great friend Geoff Hurst. I could not have achieved my job as Wigan coach without him. Thank you so much Geoff and I will see you soon as I can.

He is an unsung hero of Wigan RL. Please have an enjoyable celebration, I truly wish I could be there.

To Shaun Wane and his team I wish them every success.

However, I’ve not seen a team playing in the Super League or the NRL, the great Wigan side who played Manly in that 1st World Club Challenge game, wouldn’t have been able to beat.

Have a great celebration!

Cheers, Lowie