‘They are vital’: How the NRL’s old guard are ushering in a new generation – and winning the argument for expansion


Here’s a fun game you can play the next time you hear someone say there isn’t enough talent for NRL expansion: go look through the team lists for the last two weekends of reserve grade and pick the best side you can.

In fact, go one better: pick two.

The Roar did exactly this as a thought experiment, a chance to take stock of the stocks, if you will, of depth in the NRL – more on which later.

While we love to get hyped about the next big thing coming through, what is most noticeable watching reggies is the number of names that are recognisable, either older blokes who have dropped down a level or fringe first graders biding their time until the next opportunity arises.

Beneath the top grade, there are two competitions, the NSW Cup and the Queensland Cup, and beneath that, a third grade and a raft of junior comps, but this is just the seconds that we’re worried about.

In Australia, each first grade squad has 30 members plus perhaps five or six supplemental players that don’t count to the salary cap, either train and trial deals or developmental deals.

That makes roughly 600 male players who you could call first graders, as in guys with an NRL contract, plus a raft of other blokes who run around in reggies on part-time money either because they haven’t given up the dream of getting another crack or because they quite like the lifestyle of having a second, pretty well paid job.

You might expand that 600 to almost a thousand players who derive the biggest portion of their income from playing rugby league, especially if you factor in those playing out in the bush who get jobs as a result of their playing skill, even if they aren’t directly paid for their work.

Compare that with cricket, where there are a hugely limited number of professional jobs for players, or soccer, where there are more jobs but far worse paid, and you’re looking at a decent career choice for a multi-sport athlete.

This is before considering how much better a prospect rugby league is for you if you are female, where the NRLW trumps all as far as cash and pathways are concerned.

The huge expansion in active players is no accident, either.

The greater salary cap available in the NRL has increased the minimum wage for players 20-30 on the list, which incentivises them to stick around and keep playing when otherwise they might have dropped out, and it also keeps fringe players interested in having another crack.

Dylan Napa. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The smartest clubs also know that the depth options available to them might be the difference in the middle of the year when Origin, injuries and suspensions begin to bite.

The Roosters have carried Dylan Napa for over a year – and had Nathan Brown prior to his move to Manly – while the Panthers have made an artform of getting second-string halves to use when inevitably Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai are missing, not to mention the likes of Tyrone Peachey as a utilitarian back-up.

The Sea Eagles followed that lead, locking in the likes of Brown, Matt Lodge and Aaron Woods to fringe deals and then keeping them in reserve, confident that they would fit in more readily than a rookie.

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That adds the ability to time when you give debuts out, picking opportune moments rather than throwing them in at the deep end, while also letting your young players feature alongside experienced pros, with all the benefits that it brings.

It’s as much about culture as it is depth.

Speaking to The Roar League Podcast, Canberra NSW Cup coach Brock Shepperd, who has also been in the systems at Manly, Penrith, Mounties and the Wests Tigers, described the impact that the older guys can have on bringing the pathway along.

Jarrod Croker. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

“Last year, Jarrod Croker played half the year with the NSW Cup and he’s now doing a little bit of coaching on the side, specialised coaching with NRL and Cup,” he said of the Canberra legend.

“The way that our young players speak about the impact that he had on them (is amazing), not only in relation to how cool it is to play with someone like that but also how much he can develop a player as a coach on the field, a coach at training who’s got that respect because he’s only just come out of the game.

“Trying to keep those guys in and around NRL systems and in NSW and Queensland Cup would be hugely beneficial, because it assists the development of those young players so much.

“Not so much the technical and tactical, but it could be a little conversation here and there and a little tip in relation to something really specific.

“They are vital. Absolutely vital. We don’t have enough of them in NSW and Queensland Cup.”

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Anyway, those squads.

Here’s what we’re calling, for the sake of argument, the Perth Bears and the South Island Kea, made up entirely of players who featured in the last three rounds of NSW or Q Cup.

Don’t debate the clubs, but look at the talent.

Perth Bears

Sua FaalogoEdrick LeeMichael JenningsTyrone PeacheyNick CotricBrandon WakehamLachlan IliasJarrod WallaceJake TurpinSean KeppieSiua WongCorey HorsburghJosh SchusterDaine LaurieChris McQueenAaron WoodsEthan Bullemor

South Island Kea

Te Maire MartinTesi NiuMarion SevePaul AlamotiEdward KosiToby SextonJackson HastingsJames TamouSoni LukeNelson Asofa-SolomonaBen Murdoch-MasilaBrad ParkerTepai MoeroaZach Dockar-ClayAnthony MilfordDylan NapaSiliva Havili

Nobody is saying these teams would win the NRL, but hold their own along with the bottom half? Probably.

That list has Kangaroos, Kiwis and other Test players, plus plenty of Origin experience and hundreds of NRL games.

Moreover, those 36 names don’t include the blokes who are currently in Super League but wouldn’t be if there was another 30 roster spots available.

It also doesn’t include the English players who would move to Australia if they knew that regular game time was there to be had – and as has been seen from the strong starts of Morgan Smithies at Canberra and Kai Pearce-Paul at Newcastle, there is plenty of talent to be tapped if the offer is good enough.

That the NRL can boast this much excess talent speaks to the strength of the league at the moment, which is there for anyone to see who watches reserve grade, because both state cups are about as good as they’ve ever been.

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