Hayden Ensbey (right) in the under 18's minor semi-final between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field last year.
Hayden Ensbey (right) in the under 18's minor semi-final between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field last year.

Calls for action on junior league crisis

RENOWNED rugby league coach Col Speed has voiced his concerns over the state of junior rugby league with player numbers slowly declining.

The 2019 Ausplay Survey on competitor numbers across all codes found rugby league was the ninth most popular for the entire population.

While roughly 41,000 kids between 9 and 11 were playing in 2019, 5,000 less were playing between 12 and 14 years old.

Compared to soccer, which had a total of 1,086,300 people playing, rugby league had just 151,000 participating in 2019.

MASTER CLASS: Ghosts first grade coach Col Speed spends a light-hearted moment with players Daniel Lollback and Oliver Percy before their clash with Cudgen in 2011. Photo: Gary Nichols/The Daily Examiner
MASTER CLASS: Ghosts first grade coach Col Speed spends a light-hearted moment with players Daniel Lollback and Oliver Percy before their clash with Cudgen in 2011. Photo: Gary Nichols/The Daily Examiner

The significant drop in numbers when kids reach the latter stages of school is nothing new, but Speed would like to see more being done to see what it will take to keep the kids coming back

"It's a difficult point in their lives. These kids are starting to go into employment and can often be busy on the weekends," Speed said.

"I think we need to look at how we can market the game for this age bracket. Other sports play midweek games and that seems pretty popular."

Speed said for a region like Grafton, a rugby league mecca, numbers should be much higher.

"In a nutshell, there are limited numbers in the 18s and no 16s at the Ghosts. For a sports mad town that loves its rugby league it just doesn't make sense," he said.

"I went to Kyogle during the season and they had the same problem, it's not just in Grafton.

"The situation at the Ghosts at the moment is not an overnight fix. I think it's something that could have been looked at earlier and you wouldn't want it to happen again.

"People say clubs go through lean years but I don't agree. If you plan well enough and work towards that it can be prevented."

After the cancellation of the Group 2 senior rugby league competition, a number of players turned to Northern Rivers Regional Rugby League for game time and Speed's son Elliot was among the departures.

"Seeing my son not being able to play under-18s here has been really tough. With the effects of COVID-19 I understand there are consequences, but there was no 18s before that," he said.

"Elliot has gone over to the Marist Brothers under-18 side in Lismore where they've been very welcoming. You don't blame them for going to get a game."

North Coast Bulldogs star Elliot Speed in action during an under-18 clash between the Grafton Ghosts and Woolgoolga Seahorses at Frank McGuren Field in 2019.
North Coast Bulldogs star Elliot Speed in action during an under-18 clash between the Grafton Ghosts and Woolgoolga Seahorses at Frank McGuren Field in 2019.

While the NRRRL hasn't been without its own hiccups this season, Speed said the region should look to them for inspiration on how to rectify the problem.

"The NRRRL sent out surveys to senior and junior clubs. They were partly based on how many numbers were in each age group but it's a way of looking at overall a club's pitch and forecasting shortages in future," he said.

"These clubs are spending big money on players but I think more should be spent on development. Junior systems should be the key.

"The Ghost Juniors are very fortunate with the quality of coach's in vital age groups. For example the under-13s have Ryan Farrel and Paul Donovan leads the under-14s. In a nutshell there needs to be a closer connection with Junior and Senior Clubs with a development professional pathway plan in place."

Speed suggested other incentives to keep kids interested in the game as well.

"The kids have to want to play the sport but you an get them more invested in the NRL and the likes with trips to the Gold Coast Titans or other incentives to give them a bit of fun," he said.

"The current state of the game is a worry and senior clubs need to learn from this and figure out how to adapt and be sustainable over the next 10 to 15 years."



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