Monday Musings: The Kids Are Alright

Tony Smith must’ve looked at the pitch at his former wards and felt a slight tinge of jealousy and regret. On Sunday, as Warrington hosted the champions and put in an improved performance, it still wasn’t enough to beat a resilient Leeds side. Not only that, but they were beaten by a side with 12 out of the starting thirteen being products of the Leeds Academy system, with only Scott Donald not being from around those parts (another product of theirs, Danny Allan, was on the bench).

Elsewhere, Wigan changed the direction of their season with a crushing defeat of the Bradford Bulls. In doing so they finally gave Sam Tomkins the start many had been pushing for and he certainly did not disappoint, and neither did Shaun Ainscough, Michael McIlorum or the other products of the vaunted Wigan Academy that finally seem to be getting playing time. Hull FC (briefly) went to the top of the table this week with a victory engineered by a backline featuring five of their own products. Castleford’s talented group of young guns have clearly learned from the trials of last season because they’re currently in third place and have already won in Wigan and Perpignan. Even Harlequins, who have to make do with relatively miniscule (if admittedly growing) resources when it comes to junior development and local talent, fielded four of their juniors in their side that thrashed Salford away.

Perhaps, just perhaps, teams have begun paying attention to the fact that Leeds and St Helens, by far and away the two most successful teams of the last few years, are both brimming with youngsters that have come through their respective systems. Look at the last three Men of Steel: Paul Wellens, James Roby and James Graham, all players who have come through the system at Saints and are now established not only as amongst the top performers in Super League, but as internationals as well. For the Rhinos it’s no secret that the key to their success has been their midfield triangle of Kevin Sinfield, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire, and recently they’ve been joined by a host of talented youngsters in the pack. Although these sides are supplemented with bought-in superstars, for the most part their success is remarkably self-developed. 

But really, it’s the same for most of the successful sides of recent times. Bradford’s period of dominance was built upon the success of the likes of Jamie Peacock (not actually a Bradford product as such, but I think they can claim to have made him the player he is), Stuart Fielden, Paul Deacon and Leon Pryce leading the way. Their decline correlates with the departure of thee of them. Even the great Wigan side of the 80s and 90s that outspent everyone else had a core of local players like Shaun Edwards, Denis Betts and Andy Farrell. 

So why do great sides often have a nucleus of local talent? I would guess that this is for four reasons. Firstly, bringing through talented youngsters is for the most part cheaper than importing proven veterans, which means that if you do have a group of core youngsters you can be a little more lavish with the people you bring in (of course, when the locals reach the stage where they’re demanding better wages, the picture changes slightly). Secondly, a bountiful youth program tends to mean more talented players in a club’s reserve grades, which in turn means more competition for places in the first team, which in turn drives everyone on and helps to reduce levels of complacency. Thirdly, when players have been together right through the youth systems up into the first team, they develop an understanding of each other’s style of play which in turn allows for a more accurate use of intuition and instincts on the pitch – it’s a lot easier to react to a team-mate if you’re pretty sure you know what he’s going to do. Fourthly, although it’s completely speculative you would have to think that players who come through the Academy system of their local club are just going to want it more, and local pride is a motivating factor in driving them on. It’s hard to quantify such things, but local pride is often the x-factor a side needs to drive it over the edge. 

Part of the reason for introducing the franchise system was to ease the pressure on sides that saw them rush for veteran performers to pull them off the bottom instead of giving youngsters the game time needed to develop. It’s good to see that a few of the sides are taking advantage of this and so far have been rewarded accordingly. Of course a reliance on self-developed talent is going to be harder for some sides than others (Quins and Celtic Crusaders spring to mind) but it’s important for the sake of the game in this country that effort is put into developing the junior player base. Leeds have clearly made a success of it (so much so that it appears to have caught the attention of the RFU), so perhaps the RFL could encourage some of the other sides to follow their lead. It might turn out to be of benefit for them.

Crystal Ball-watch

A fairly successful week in terms of predictions, with the first full round of fixtures bringing in five correct predictions and two wrong ones. I didn’t come close to getting any margins right until Sunday though, when I was 1 and 2 points off guessing correctly Hull KR and Leed’s margins of victory respectively. Grrr. Also, will Huddersfield please decide if they’re really good or merely mediocre? It would make my life a lot easier.

Results: 16 / 28 (57.1%)

Margins: 1 / 28 (3.6%)

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