Young players are a gamble but the rewards can be rich - Peter Smith’s Inside Rugby League
HOW DOES a young player get a chance to prove what he can do at first-team level?
There’s a saying about being old enough if you’re good enough, but, realistically, coaches tend to put experience first.
Of course, the only way of gaining experience is by playing, but young players inevitably make mistakes.
Coaches, probably more than anyone else, are under pressure to get results and, if their team is struggling near the foot of the table, the argument about teenagers gaining valuable experience won’t cut much ice.
It’s not often a senior player is dropped to give a kid a chance; it usually takes an injury to open the door, but clubs who give young players an opportunity are often most successful, even if it takes a while.
The academies at St Helens and Wigan Warriors regularly produce a stream of youngsters who shine at first-team level, when given a chance - though both clubs augment that by also bringing in experienced, quality players.
Young players, however much talent they have, are a gamble but, if a crop of them come through together, the team spirit which is so vital in a sport like rugby league comes ready-made.
They often, having risen through the youth system, have an in-built loyalty to their club and - as a bonus - are also cheaper than signing star men.
The ideal scenario is to drip feed young players into a team, so they can play alongside older, more seasoned professionals and aren’t in a side getting beaten every week.
Since Betfred Super League resumed last August, Leeds Rhinos have given a debut to seven players from their youth system.
One of those, Loui McConnell, moved on at the end of the 2020 season but, of the others, Liam Tindall and Corey Hall have yet to be on the winning side after three senior appearances each, Morgan Gannon has suffered a defeat in both his first-team matches and Sam Walters, Jarrod O’Connor and Jack Broadbent - with six, six and seven games respectively - have had just one victory each.
If he had a choice, coach Richard Agar wouldn’t have had Gannon, Walters, O’Connor and Broadbent in the team together, as was the case against Wigan last week. But he had to because Leeds, at the last count, had 12 players unavailable.
That makes it a steep learning curve for the rookies drafted in and, while Rhinos haven’t been winning, experience gained by the next generation will prove invaluable.
Hall, just 18, had a difficult full debut against Castleford earlier this month and Agar took him out of the firing line by moving an experienced second-rower, Alex Mellor, into the centres, but he has remained in Leeds’ 21-man squads and showed some positive signs in the second half of the Tigers game.
Ideally, once some sort of normality returns to the sport, he will get an opportunity to continue his education on loan at Championship level, but the others will give Agar a headache as first-choice players begin to return.
Gannon is 17 and has time on his side but, having looked so assured in his two substitute appearances so far, won’t be far away even when the coach’s hand isn’t forced by injuries.
Walters has now had successive Super League starts and O’Connor may not be the biggest forward in the game, but put a huge shift in off the bench in the past two games. The big conundrum, though, will be Broadbent.
The four games he has played this year weren’t perfect, but he has been very good at both centre and full-back and certainly deserves to retain his place, even once more senior players return. It’s a good problem to have. Agar shouldn’t be criticised when at least some of the teenagers and 20 years olds make way over the next few weeks, because Rhinos need to get some wins on the board and more experience in the side will help them do that.
But Agar now knows if he wants - or has - to give youngsters in the full-time squad a go, they won’t let him down and that is the big positive from Leeds’ difficult start to the campaign.
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