Rugby league great Phil Gould says the widening gap between the NRL’s top and bottom teams has been brought on by the game’s controversial decision to scrap the under-20s competition back in 2017.
As was the case at end of the home and away last year – The Sea Eagles, Bulldogs, Tigers, Broncos, Cowboys Titans and Warriors all sit outside the top eight through the opening four rounds, while the likes of the Panthers, Eels, Storm, Roosters, Souths and Raiders round out much of the top end of the ladder.
The gap between the NRL’s best and worst comes following a round that saw an average winning margin of 26.13, the highest it’s been since round 16 of the 2004 season.
Discussing the current divide, Gould admitted he wasn’t surprised to see it come to fruition after the NRL famously discontinued its under-20s competition at the end of the 2017 season, which was replaced by state-based competitions in New South Wales and Queensland.
“Our game made a decision several years ago to get rid of the national under-20s competition,” Gould told Nine’s 100% Footy.
“At that time we warned all that this could potentially happen to the game. That if teams walked away from development and developing younger fellas to come into their roster, if we didn’t have that competitive national under-20s competition, which was the envy of every other sport in Australia, that we would see this.
“Now I didn’t think the decline would come so quickly, but those clubs that have continued on some sort of development programs are the ones that are still surviving today.
“And those that have completely walked away from it, are finding themselves in a real hole and can’t get out of it by just recruiting.”
Gould, the most successful NSW Blues coach in history, said he fears the three Queensland teams especially will continue to be affected by the decision to switch to state league competitions.
“Your Queensland clubs, who sent everything back to the state league – your Broncos, Cowboys and Titans, all of these clubs are going to run into real problems because they walked away four, five years ago,” he said.
“I still can’t believe we gave up what was a great product and a great breeding ground, not just for players, but for coaches, referees, officials and everyone working in a club.”
At the time of the under-20s competition, each of the NRL’s 16 clubs would field 20-member squads.
The competition, which commenced in 2008 before finishing at the end of 2017, saw one in five players make the transition to the NRL.
Gould took particular aim at a number of CEOs for wanting to cut costs rather than putting the future of the game first.
“There were a few CEOs at the time who thought they could save money by abandoning the U20s,” Gould added.
“These people had no idea on developing talent, they had no idea what makes it tick, they had no idea where our game came from.
“We warned them, but clubs voted because we had CEOs that didn’t understand what it was going to cost the game.
“I said, ‘you’re going to save money now, but it’s going to cost you big time down the track’.
“The way we treated our second tier 20 years ago and the way we’ve treated it sending it back to state leagues – expecting state league organisations to produce your next raft of players, it’s not going to happen.
Panthers put on a clinic at Lottoland against the Sea Eagles
“NRL players get produced by NRL clubs, in NRL systems. It’s not going to be produced by semi-amateur and semi-professional state league organisations.”
He said the divide between top and bottom clubs would continue unless the NRL restructures its entire second-tier and development pathways.
“This [divide] is going to keep on going for the next four or five years,” he said.
“They need to start again now and get a vertical integration within all NRL clubs – so they’ve got a second-tier team, junior rep depth and an U20s program that can produce the next range of NRL footballers.”
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