Draft Planning

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The 2004 NFL draft has come and gone, with number one overall pick Eli Manning making national headlines as the New York Giants saviour, the man to lift the franchise out of their slump. Management, the fans and the coaches will trust much of the franchises success to this man, who, at 23, has walked out of college and into national fame. The frenzy the NFL draft has caused, as well as recent suggestions by many commentators, including former Australian coach Chris Anderson, sees me take a look at the idea of a possible NRL player draft.

Many see the draft as the logical extension of the salary cap, the best young talent, theoretically, going to the weakest clubs, in an effort to even the playing field. Combined with the inability of the top clubs to retain all of their squad within the salary cap, these measures should see an even playing field for all NRL teams, with no chance of seeing your side suffer an extended slump (or dominance) over several seasons. It is a great idea on paper, so why have the NRL yet to install one?

The major stumbling block for a draft is the levels of involvement NRL clubs have in the games junior development programs. American sport relies solely on the high school and college systems to develop athletes; professional clubs have no direct affiliation with junior development. While certain institutions offer more incentives and are more appealing for junior athletes (due to their reputation, the level of competition they face and the quality of athletes they produce); they still have no link to the professional teams these athletes will eventually represent. Essentially all elite junior competition takes place in high school and college divisions, and all junior development is handled by high schools and colleges.

Compare this to the Australian junior rugby league system, where junior players are affiliated with an NRL club from as young an age as 13. Any remarkable junior talent will undoubtedly be scouted to represent an NRL club in the Harold Matthews and SG Ball competitions, and later, Jersey Flegg and Premier League. Clubs representation even stretches to younger ages, such as the Parramatta and Souths juniors, who run teams in all age divisions. The NRL clubs (at least in NSW) are almost solely responsible for junior player development, as top representative honours at junior levels are playing for an NRL clubs junior side.

This is not restricted to a clubs geographical position. Some clubs junior development areas stretch over entire local competitions, while scouts are also employed to lure the best talent from country areas and Queensland. While this creates issues in itself (such as the recent Jamie Lyon saga), it is a far cry from the American system of centralised junior competition and development, and creates obvious problems. No NRL club will agree to essentially 'give up' players they have developed to poorer performing sides in a draft. The junior system would need a complete reconstruction over many years, even decades, to prepare for a player draft; removing the role of professional clubs in the development of junior players and fielding of junior sides. This type of restructuring is not an option considering the struggles junior development already face, and the gains being made by AFL, soccer and union in junior participation numbers, while rugby league junior numbers suffer with the sports declining image.

Junior rugby league could not survive without the NRL clubs, and the standard of first grade talent playing today would not be nearly as high if NRL clubs did not scout far and wide for the best players at junior levels. The recent City/Country clash shows how many of our elite players come from country areas; areas that these players probably would have stayed in had NRL club scouts not found them. Without the backing of NRL clubs, rugby leagues junior development would not be in the strong position that it is.

While the draft system is a success in many sports, including AFL, these sports share a common trait; the professional teams have no direct involvement or affiliation with junior leagues. Until rugby league can boast the same, a player draft is simply not feasible. The NRL is stuck between a rock and a hard place, to create a player draft, they need to cut off the NRL clubs from junior rugby league, but without these clubs involvement, there won't be too many players worth drafting into NRL sides.

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