On the whole, the general consensus among the English rugby league public is that the national side took some significant, and encouraging, strides forward over the last six weeks.
Nobody wants a repeat of the scenes that saw our players strewn on the floor, devastated by another defeat to the Australians, by the time the World Cup comes around in 2021 – that much is obvious. But how do we go about bucking that particular trend?
Clearly, the answer is not that simple. It will require a dedicated and thorough four-year plan to ensure the next World Cup has a much happier ending: but one of the priorities is ensuring the conveyor belt of talent is still rolling smoothy – if not better – in four years’ time.
The likes of John Bateman, Luke Gale, Jermaine McGillvary and Josh Hodgson have all established themselves as bonafide international players in the last couple of years – but to continue that pathway, and to give even more young stars the chance of showing their worth, could Super League take a potentially revolutionary step to guarantee the next generation of talent get their opportunity?
The argument for decades has been how England do not produce enough quality half-backs and pivots. That, some believe, is still the case following this World Cup – although that is a whole other issue in this particular instance. The loss of England Academy captain Callum McLelland to Scottish rugby union has only further intensified the debate about how we keep our talented young players not only happy, but playing – and this may be the answer.
It’s a simple quota, but with a difference. Whereas now, Super League clubs are limited to the amount of overseas players they can bring into their club and indeed, the competition, this would ensure that a minimum of two homegrown, Academy-produced players under the age of 25 are in every club’s match-day 17 each and every week.
For some clubs, that wouldn’t be a challenge. After all, Leeds won a Grand Final last season with Jack Walker at fullback and Brad Singleton at prop, as well as Stevie Ward and Liam Sutcliffe in there, too. Wigan would also find it fairly easy given their fine track record of producing talent. Even Wakefield, with players like Tom Johnstone and James Batchelor set for bright futures, could do it.
But perhaps a temptation of some clubs in the past has been to shy their younger players away from the bigger games, and the more hostile environments. This move guarantees that they get high-end exposure from a very young age, and gives them the best breeding ground to become tomorrow’s stars of the international game with England.
This system would also ensure that clubs can see the fruits of their labour at Academy level be guaranteed opportunities to experience Super League rugby, too.
Are there flaws to a system like this? Yes – but don’t most systems have flaws. For example, there is currently one Super League club operating without an Academy side – but if you did introduce a quota like this, it would have to be the RFL putting pressure on said club to get an Academy set up as soon as possible. Quite how some Super League sides don’t have Academy setups in the first place is a worry, with or without this system. Perhaps this would speed the whole process up.
We are desperate for more young players to get their opportunities at Super League level. Look at how the likes of Jack Walker and, to a lesser extent, Jacob Trueman took theirs earlier this year. By forcing clubs to commit to having at least two of their Academy-produced players in their team each and every week, it would have a tangible, long-term effect on the prospects of the national side.
And as we lick our wounds from the heartbreak of last weekend’s World Cup final, that can only be a good thing.