Gal: NRL’s mistake could do lasting damage

NRL great PAUL GALLEN writes exclusively for Wide World of Sports and will appear on Nine’s 100 FOOTY% on Monday night, debating rugby league’s big issues alongside Phil Gould and James Bracey. Watch from 11.10pm AEST!

It’s been a mistake by the NRL to not have a second-tier competition this season.

I’m worried that it might cause lasting damage to the game, that the standard of play could be affected beyond this season by leaving so many players inactive.

Perhaps that risk is minimal but I believe it does exist. It’s a risk that the governing body should have thought more about.

They should have put more time and effort into getting a second-tier comp up and running. While the second-tier leagues are run by the NSWRL and QRL, the onus to get them active had to be on the ARL Commission/NRL, as the highest governing body amid such unprecedented circumstances.

I went to a local A-grade game on the weekend and it struck me. How is it that we’re managing to play those games, yet not a reserve grade competition below the NRL? How can we have park footy but not a second-tier comp serving the most important league in the country?

It’s a hell of an oversight.

Sharks debutant Jackson Ferris scored a try but also injured his knee against the Broncos. (Getty)

Right now, there are hundreds of guys not playing football. No junior reps. No third-tier. And no second-tier.

In the NRL alone, you can have about 400 guys per season playing – so it’s an enormous number of guys below that who are sidelined.

It’s a huge gap for the game, which I’m really hoping doesn’t affect the standard of the NRL in years to come.

There will be plenty of cases where guys won’t play a game for about 18 months; from the end of last season to the start of the next.

For those that get called up, to walk into a first grade team after months of being inactive, it’s an extremely tough ask.

Forget what we saw from John Bateman on the weekend. Bateman is a special player; a Test forward and Dally M Second Rower of the Year with plenty of experience. His performance in his first game back from injury was amazing.

Your regular player might need a few weeks to find his feet after returning from injury. He might need a few games in reserve grade. Not everyone can be thrown into an NRL game cold and do what Bateman did.

Then look at Jackson Ferris, who made his NRL debut for the Sharks. He started really well and looked the part, including scoring a try, but his body just hasn’t been seasoned for the NRL. That’s a tough enough leap even when you’re playing second-tier footy every weekend.

He’s come in to debut, achieving what he’s worked towards his entire life … and all of a sudden he’s done a medial ligament in his knee.

Many injuries just come down to bad luck. But this season, it just feels like there’s been too many injuries to mark them all up to bad luck. As I wrote last week, this year’s competition is becoming a survival of the fittest scenario.

Some of these injuries have to come back to the fact that these guys getting called into NRL sides just aren’t playing any rugby league beforehand. That’s on top of the shutdown period where players were left to train alone.

John Bateman takes a run for Canberra against the Cowboys in his return from injury. (Getty)

When they’ve come back into the team training environment, players at the back end of the roster are acting as cannon fodder for their teams. They run scrimmage sessions with the first-graders, get bashed up and then do it all again, without even getting to play a game on the weekend.

That must be terribly hard on them, both mentally and physically.

A year-and-a-half with no football. Worst case, that’s what many players are facing if they’re not regular first-graders.

Two groups are copping the brunt of it and the stakes are high for both.

You have young players, from junior reps right up to those banging on the door for an NRL debut. Gifted young players who are still developing, yet this year are either missing out on games or playing park footy against blokes who are just there to have fun.

There’s a fair chance that either of those scenarios bring down their level of play; so how long will it take for them to recover? That’s 16 year-olds right up to 20s, from kids starting out in elite football to those trying to crack the NRL.

I’m hearing that the 20s competition may be changed to an under-21s comp next year, to give kids of that age another chance to make full-time NRL squads. That remains to be seen.

There’s been scrimmage at lower levels; I was talking to some Cronulla boys the other day who did a nine-on-nine session. But it’s just not the same intensity as playing a game. You’ve can’t replicate that.

Look at Tom Trbojevic, an NRL superstar. He would have done everything in his power to ensure that his hamstrings were OK. He would have passed every test possible.

You just can’t replicate the intensity and strain that your body is subjected to during a game. No matter how good your scrimmage sessions are, it’s no substitute; and certainly not when you’re a developing young player.

Tom Trbojevic celebrates a try before getting injured in Manly vs Canberra. (Getty)

Then there’s the fringe players, guys who are on one or two-year minimum wage contracts, who are constantly having to prove that they deserve to be in an NRL squad.

They’re in doing the weights, doing the running, doing the bruising scrimmage sessions against the first-graders … and then they don’t even get to go out there on the weekend and really have a crack in a game. To put themselves to the test and compete.

That’s what athletes are all about. They want to compete and for these guys to be unable to do that must be incredibly frustrating.

Some of those guys are on the cusp of playing NRL, yet don’t have a genuine outlet to prove themselves. Others aren’t really close to getting a first grade game and don’t even have their kill at the end of the week, when they at least get to play second-tier footy as a reward for all the training.

You can even extend the impact of this to a particular set of fans: those connected to players.

Think about how many people a single player brings to rugby league: a wife/girlfriend, kids, mum, dad, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, nephews, nieces, cousins, then all the extended family networks beyond that. It becomes a big list.

Now all the guys below NRL level, those who are striving to reach the top in rugby league, just aren’t playing. That’s a hell of a lot of eyes that aren’t watching footy, to watch their partner, son or sibling play.

I’d hope that in these difficult times, more people than ever feel compelled to watch the NRL, but you just never know. But for the families of players, as with the players themselves, this all must be extremely frustrating.

How much can you get out of Bulldogs veteran Kieran Foran?

Again, had the NRL thought about this a bit more, perhaps we could have had a second-tier competition in place.

I understand that it couldn’t be done straight away. It’s been an enormous job just to get the NRL back up and running, with all the COVID-19 restrictions in place, and first grade had to be the standout priority given the broadcast money at stake.

But after a few weeks, especially with the injury toll that we’ve started seeing, I think that a reserve grade competition had to be given due consideration.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be a fully-fledged competition; we’re just talking about a structure where guys can play real, full-intensity games, whatever that may look like.

Getting these players active again has to become a priority. Because there’s another thing at play here, too.

We’re all just assuming that COVID will go away by the start of next season. We don’t know. The world is changing by the day.

There’s no guarantee that we will be starting next season exactly as planned. That the long lay-off will end at that time for these sidelined players.

We really need to think about a second-tier competition and a development pathway for younger players, to do the right thing by them – and by the game.

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