Firstly the good news.
The Parramatta Eels Junior Representative and Player Development program is currently on a much better path than it was in previous seasons. There is still work to be done, but from a player perspective we are about to land on the crest of a wave of young talent infiltrating the NRL squad, and this will transform how the Parramatta Football program is perceived.
This may be difficult for those unfamiliar with the young talent to see just yet. Unless you get to Junior Reps or to Wenty to watch the Jersey Flegg team go around, the players are just names with hearsay attached to them. However, the years of recruitment and development of younger stars via Anthony Field and Matt Desira was always going to take at least 5-7 years to start bearing fruit.
Just this last weekend we witnessed graduates from the Eels Development program – Brown, Dunster, and Kaufusi – take the field for Wenty. This would obviously be good news, but there was a down side – they were wearing a black and white jersey.
It is imperative that Eels field their own ISP team, for whilst the joint venture with Wenty continues, it will remain an anchor for the Eels. I’ve written about this before, but there are further limitations coming from this partnership which were highlighted on the weekend.
Brown and Dunster made their debut in a team containing nine, that’s correct nine, Wenty contracted players. Apart from saving money on such contracts, it is pointless fielding rising young Parramatta players alongside older park footballers when they are only one step away from the NRL.
With all due respect to these Magpie players, a future NRL deal is not likely. Why would the Eels field players from its Top 30 squad, let alone it’s younger stars, alongside park footballers? The answer is a resounding, they shouldn’t!
The current structure of the pathways system sees age restricted football end at the under 20s Jersey Flegg Cup. For the Parramatta Eels, the next step is the Wenty ISP team. Besides the ludicrous scenario of the Parramatta pathway suddenly veering to a different club and jersey (see my earlier post on this topic), the only players progressing to this level for the Eels are generally those on, or about to be awarded, an NRL Rookie contract.
This must change, and it can change if Parramatta takes complete control of its ISP team, and therefore total control of its pathways. Besides taking such control, there are a couple of decisions that I’d like the Eels to make in relation to this.
Keeping Young Players on Second Tier Parramatta Contracts
Not every graduate of the Flegg team will have demonstrated their football potential by age 20. This will be true of a number of the current team, especially the forwards. This team boasts a very strong pack of forwards, most of whom might not be offered a Rookie contract. A couple might be lost to other clubs, but the club has a genuine opportunity to keep many of them on Parramatta second tier deals.
There should be minimal losses of talented 20 year old forwards when they can be kept on financially prudent deals playing for a Parramatta ISP team.
Furthermore, there is far more to gain from an additional couple of years contracting such players. It’s advantageous to have players in our Top 30 playing alongside and teaching younger players like this rather than having them taking the field with older players who have either no background with the Eels or no potential to progress.
It’s a reality that you can’t keep everyone. It’s also a reality that clubs sometimes make mistakes with whom they keep. But it is possible to minimise any errors. As Parramatta look to identify their Rookie Contracts for next year, they can buy themselves crucial extra time by keeping selected 20 year olds on second tier deals. This keeps the young player in the system whilst continuing to develop and assess their skills.
Taking a Punt On Youth
There’s little doubt that Brad Arthur will be giving young players important Top 30 spots in 2019. If pushed, I’m sure that the Football Department would have liked to include players such as Reed Mahoney, Jaeman Salmon and Ray Stone at some stage in this year’s list. It’s very difficult to predict how a player will develop throughout the season and unfortunately everyone has to work within a flawed NRL system.
Besides the obvious players moving from Rookie contracts to Top 30 deals next year, I’d encourage the Eels to bypass the Rookie contracts for a couple of young stars and move them directly to an NRL deal. If the club is already considering a Rookie contract for players such as Dylan Brown or Oregon Kaufusi, they should contemplate placing them straight into the Top squad.
There is a twofold benefit for such a decision.
Besides avoiding any potential regrets about not being able to blood a player during the season next year, direct promotion of a couple of young players to the Top 30 would open up Rookie contract opportunities for others who would otherwise miss out. I have little doubt that a couple of the players potentially targetted for a Rookie deal could easily handle a spot at the lower end of the NRL squad.
Used in conjunction with astute recruitment and a youth second tier contract policy, it would have the potential to revamp our pathways. Investment in youth at the bottom end of the top squad is much better future planning than filling the spots with too many “depth” players.
I have confidence that there will be positives to come from the current review, with decisions likely to relate to the Eels pathways. I’ll continue to advocate for an end to our joint venture with Wenty, and the retention of Flegg graduates via an Eels ISP team. Such decisions need to be made sooner rather than later.
Let’s make it happen.