Sam Tomkins has savaged rugby league authorities for not addressing a crumbling reserves system.
Only three Super League outfits will run second-string sides this year after Warrington and Hull FC abandoned their sides.
Clubs are allowed to decide themselves whether they want to run a second-tier side – to bridge the gap between Under-19s and first-team.
For players who are too old for the U19s – and not ready for the first-team – their only chance to play is by going on dual-registration (a week-to-week loan arrangement) to a lower-league side.
Tomkins described the situation as “madness” during a rant on Twitter last week.
And he was only to happy to elaborate on his thoughts when asked about the reserves at yesterday’s media day at Haigh Hall.
He said: “It’s crazy that as a sport we want to grow, make our own players and all this, but we don’t have a reserves competition.
“I think it’s rubbish. It’s completely rubbish.
“We can’t expect kids to be ready for the first-team at 19.
“If they’re not ready at 19 they’re on a real uphill battle to get in.
“There are kids at 19 and some look 21, some look 16... it’s tough to prove yourself.
“Look at the average age of a debutant in the NRL – he’s into his 20s. So what are we doing where at 19 you have to go on dual reg?
“You go to a club who you train once a week with – and a club who very often don’t want you.
“You’re meant to go up to Barrow and impress your head coach in Warrington or Wigan or St Helens? It’s a tough ask.
“It’s as if you’re saying, ‘If you’re not ready at 19 then you’ve got to be unbelievably committed, unbelievably impressive at a lower level with a team you don’t play with to get back in’.
“I just think it’s mad.”
The history books are littered with great players who didn’t break through until they were older than 19. Former Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock was 21 when he made his Bradford debut.
“Chris Hill only came through late, and now he’s one of if not the best prop in the league,” said Tomkins, nodding to the Warrington prop who started his career at Leigh. Both Wire and FC remain big advocates for the reserves, but decided against running sides as last year’s format was so poor. The matches were friendlies, organised on an ad hoc basis – and both clubs say they would support moves to make a reserves competition compulsory.
Some clubs decided against running reserves as a cost-cutting measure, but Tomkins says they need to look at the bigger picture.
“It should be a criteria if you’re in Super League to have a reserves comp,” said the 28-year-old.
“I know it comes out of clubs’ pockets but clubs buy plenty of players that they don’t need – overseas players come over and take up the amount of money that it would cost to run a reserves side.
“It’s because you don’t see the results straight away (but) over time it develops.”
Before the switch to the current system, Super League operated an Under-21s which allowed for a few open-age players. Tomkins is baffled at the way the game has taken a big step backwards.
“Even if we had an under-21s and you’ve got kids who are 18 having to play against kids a bit older than them, that’s better development than saying at 19, ‘You’re going on loan, you’re going everywhere’,” he added.
“I think it’s crazy and if you want to make more superstar rugby league players British-born, then you’ve got to have one.”
Wigan will continue their link-up with Championship side Swinton in 2018 and send some players on dual-registration, but use it alongside their reserves, who will have matches against St Helens, Wakefield, Keighley, Leigh and Halifax.
Clubs which run reserve teams are allowed an extra 10 registered players – 75 rather than 65. Players aged under-21 who earn less than £20,000 don’t count on the salary cap.