BLOG: Warrington news and player pool worries

The current situation in Super League was perhaps personified by three items of news out of Warrington last week.

First off, strike centre Peta Hiku is abandoning the club citing family reasons, just nine games in to a two-and-a-half year deal, to go and join New Zealand Warriors – yet another antipodean who has seemingly used Super League as a stepping stone to get back to the NRL as soon as possible when the right deal comes along.

The Wolves pre-season was overshadowed by Chris Sandow opting to do the same, though at least they haven’t had to watch him light up games for anybody else.

Then there was the news that Tony Smith would depart the club after almost nine years, following a disappointing season which has seen them play out the last seven games in The Qualifiers.

From where the Wolves were prior to Smith taking over, you can say he has done well. Three Challenge Cups and two League Leaders Shields are a good return for a club that hadn’t even got close to tasting success in the summer era before he arrived.

But the three Super League Grand Final defeats mean the elusive championship evaded them. The Wolves now find themselves at a massive crossroads, needing to identify a new coach, probably a pair of new half-backs and a new identity if they are to return to the top four in 2018.

They can at least look at the example set by Leeds, who also found themselves in The Qualifiers in 2016 before turning it around to guarantee a second place finish in Super League this year.

For me, the Wolves just haven’t done enough to emulate the success of Leeds, Wigan and St Helens in bringing through their own youngsters. They signed Kevin Brown in the off-season when they already had the ageing Kurt Gidley, instead of putting faith in Dec Patton.

That brings us on to the third news item – Ashton Sims’ pending departure to Toronto Wolfpack.

Sims has done marginally better than Roy Asotasi, but has hardly been the barnstorming, show-stopping, marquee-type signing many expected him to be.

He is a very good pick up for Toronto, who will be playing in the Championship next season after winning League 1.

Whatever your opinion of the Wolfpack project, there is a wider issue relating to the player pool when looking at these expansion franchises.

We are many years off Toronto being able to bring Canadians in to the game, let alone Canadians that are Super League standard. In the meantime, they will largely be recruiting 20-25 blokes from the north of England without adding any full-time quality players themselves.

Add another Toronto-style franchise, say New York, and there’s another up to 50 players that are being taken away from the existing 12 or 24 clubs.

The worry is, is the player pool big enough to sustain this?

There are already concerns about the quality of Super League, and this is going to be diluted further if the best players are spread even more thinly across more teams.

We have clubs in Super League not even running academies. Not only that, but the player pool is being adversely affected by the lack of a proper reserve grade, which means players are being lost to the game.

One player who would have been lost to the game if it hadn’t been for his sheer commitment to rugby league is Hull KR’s promotion-winning half back Chris Atkin, shortlisted for Championship Player of the Year.

Atkin was cut by Widnes when he reached 19, too old to play in the academy and not then deemed ready to be part of their top 25 squad and take up valuable salary cap room.

He flirted briefly with rugby union, played in his university rugby league team, and then eventually got a break at Swinton Lions through connections with former Widnes players. He now has his chance of forging a career as a full-time professional in Super League.

For every Atkin, there are tens maybe even hundreds of players that are being lost to the game, perhaps turning to rugby union or otherwise.

So while expansion to Toronto and New York may be deemed necessary for the commercial expansion of the game, attention must be given to the numbers that are playing it.

4 Comments

  1. Whilst it cannot be argued that the current lack of quality players is, in a large part, due to the lack of reserve grade/academy grade teams in which they can learn their trade, there is also an upside to expansion. The fact that there IS a larger market, must have an impact on youger players when considering their future. Where there were only 12 SL squads to aim for, the Toronto scenario, and similarly Toulouse and Catalans, offer greater chaoice and more, if somewhat different, carrots to keep developing players interestd surely?

    • More than argued, the death of the amateur game at a junior level has decimated the available player pool. I have friends in the Hull circles, they say the game is dying a death at junior level as only the academy interests the clubs. Boys and young men are turning to other sports ad who can blame them.

    • A reserve grade comp is essential for player development it brings the kids thru with a mixture of talent from older players going up and coming down from the top team.It hardens them up and teaches them better game management in the NRL they made the mistake of downgrading the reserve grade Comp and promoting the under 20 comp it did not work and now they are moving back to promoting a stronger reserve grade Comp

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