Former Canterbury, NSW and Australian representative Greg Brentnall is 100 percent behind changes being implemented by Group Nine Junior Rugby League.
The Group, with the support of senior president Andrew Hinchcliffe too, will begin Under 6s in tag while they're taught how to tackle, push back the start of grand finals and results-focussed competitions from Under 11s to Under 13s, and remove representative team programs until the latter years of junior football.
It's based on the NRL's Player Development Framework (PDF) which Brentnall had a significant role in helping to formulate.
Research suggests it can drive participation and a longer affiliation with the game. The former Canterbury premiership star believes, far from being soft on players, it will help develop more creative footballers.
"The key has to be fun and enjoyment. If kids aren't enjoying what they do (we'll lose them)," said Brentnall, who was part of the Bulldogs when they were known as 'The Entertainers', as well as an all conquering Australian team known as 'The Invincibles.'
"One of the principles is high amounts of deliberate play. It's allowing kids to play the game like we used to do in the backyard, rather than structured training practices where the first receiver stays at first receiver, and the same with second receiver...
"We were getting kids to 16 years old and only knowing how to play on one side of the field. What are we doing there?
"Or halfbacks that can't play what's in front of them because they can only play the structure they've been coached... they weren't practiced in seeing opportunities for themselves."
Essentially, league's vision is about creating age-appropriate environments for junior players.
First it's about fun, and ensuring kids want to keep coming back.
The middle years of juniors prioritise skill development for all players, leaving the focus on rep and talent identification until players are well into their teens, by which time more have had a chance to mature and decide whether they're playing just for fun, or hold higher ambitions.
The sport in NSW has been slow to pick up the ball and run with the PDF but in Queensland it's proving very popular. It means Group Nine could be something of a trailblazer for the state.
Also on the steering committee with Brentnall were Penrith coach Ivan Cleary, Panthers pathways and development guru Matt Cameron, the late Peter Mulholland who was highly regarded for his talent identification, and former Queensland Origin player Ben Ikin.
The former Australian fullback, who was also a talented Australian rules player before pursuing league, is a huge fan of other elements of the framework, including encouraging children to play plenty of sport - for their own skill development - rather than trying to specialise early.
"Some of the stats that came out in the steering committee investigations ... showed in sports like NFL and NBA, there was a high percentage of players from regional areas who had had the opportunity to try a number of sports," Brentnall says.
"To me, that's what Wagga is. That's why I brought my kids home here, to grow up with the opportunities I had... to be able to play Aussie rules, soccer, tennis, swimming, or whatever they wanted to try."
Brentnall says the PDF is not a radical new idea but, in fact, harking back to the ideals that drove his philosophy as a development manager in the 1980s and 1990s.
"I did 50,000 kilometres a year for 12 or 13 years, running level one coaching courses all over southern NSW and I had a really good panel too including Bruce Barrett (from Temora) and Graeme Kennedy, Peter Rands and Barry Cottam," Brentnall said.
"We didn't concentrate on results and the competitive side of things in the lower age groups.
"It was all about giving kids a good experience. We wanted kids coming through to be engaged in the game, to have a good first impression and connection with it. And that's what we've missed.
"We've all become so competitive with everything that we do, so some coaches of under 10s and 12s are looking at the Craig Bellamys and trying to coach the way they see them coaching."
He points to Temora, which was then a thriving league town with its own junior competition and has produced elite players ranging from Steve Reardon to Todd Payten and Trent Barrett, and Joe Stimson, Zac Lomax, and Liam Martin.
Brentnall is a big fan of reducing the physical contact in the first year or two while they're learning the skills.
He's also confident Group Nine is on the right track in trying to dramatically reduce travel for young players, which is seen as another significant deterrent to prospective families.
The proposals are backed by clubs. Turvey Park president Daryl Pellow said it's a simple reason.
"If it's going to grow the game, everyone's in support of that," Pellow said, adding that their club is looking forward to a strong season.
"Our regos are up and we'll field pretty much every team in tackle and tag bar maybe the under 15s.
"So it's good numbers still coming through."
Group Nine Juniors president Ian Mortimer said the visit by James Hinchey, a former elite league player who is now the NRL's General Manager of Game Development and Education, was critical in explaining the changes to clubs.
"We said we're giving you an opportunity to talk to the head bloke in the country about anything you're concerned about," Mortimer said.
"It was an opportunity to say, 'Here's what I'm nervous about', or ask 'How will this affect my club in this area?'
"And we all walked out really positive and wanting to rip in and have a go."
The Group Nine Junior Rugby League season starts on April 30, with true north and south pools.
Mortimer said the idea of under 6 teams travelling from Wagga to, say, Young for a short, and sometimes very one sided affair, didn't make a lot of sense. The league is convinced it was a deterrent for families.
This year, the Wagga clubs are in a southern pool, playing each other as well as trips to Albury and Tumbarumba, as well as perhaps one game against a northern pool team.
The northern towns primarily play each other, with an aim to keep their junior clubs all together rather than splitting a club's different age groups up across different venues.
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