Generation next step up for Knights department of youth

THE names and faces might not be familiar yet but they will be one day.

And when they are, the Newcastle Knights want their rough-cut rookie gems to be polished and primed and ready to shine.

Like all National Rugby League clubs, the Knights are preparing their elite under-20 players for the inaugural Toyota Cup, known initially as the National Youth Competition, which will run in conjunction with the NRL from next year.

The Toyota Cup has effectively replaced the decades-old Jersey Flegg competition but has leap-frogged Premier League in the pecking order of importance at all clubs and the extra resources and attention should ensure a significant step up in standards.

Players must be 20 or younger by December 31, 2008, to be eligible to play. Games will be played as immediate curtain-raisers before the NRL main event at every venue.

Toyota Cup manager Michael Buettner said that would give fans the chance to "discover" the next Jarrod Mullen, Jarryd Hayne or Israel Folau.

Buettner, the former NSW and Australian, North Sydney and Parramatta utility back, said the Toyota Cup was as much about providing players with the right off-field education and guidance as it was developing their skills and talents as footballers.

"Because the draw directly mirrors the NRL, they'll get to play before NRL games, they'll travel interstate and they'll travel overseas," Buettner said.

"Whether they go directly from Toyota Cup to the NRL, time will tell, but they'll get to see what it takes and what it means to be an NRL player.

"A lot of kids won't necessarily go on to the NRL but they will be offered a lot of educational and employment opportunities, so they will at least have the chance to prepare for a career as an NRL player or for a post-league career."

Knights operations manager Warren Smiles said Newcastle's players had access to the same modern facilities at the club's Mayfield training base as the NRL squad, and were exposed to the same education and welfare programs.

Smiles said the NRL was doing its bit to prepare Toyota Cup players for what to expect by running two-day pre-season induction camps for four clubs at a time. The Knights will join Melbourne, Canberra and Penrith players for their education sessions and seminars at the Sydney Football Stadium on January 18 and 19.

"The NRL are treating it as a high-profile competition and so are we. I think you'll see at least a 20 to 30 per cent increase in standard from Flegg," Smiles said.

Knights coach Brian Smith applauded the NRL for starting player education at a younger age and "making players aware of the responsibilities they've got to themselves, to their club and to the sport".

"The NRL are really trying to set up an apprenticeship scheme in terms of professional qualities, not just in a football sense but all the ancillary stuff off the field like education and presentation to the public," Smith said.

"That gives them a profile that they want footballers to develop through a protocol or a system of inputs from people at the NRL, and clubs should add to that by educating these guys into the prototype player of the future."

Coach Trent Robinson, who was in charge of Newcastle's Premier League side this year, has a training squad of 30 players and that will be trimmed before the season kicks off.

Graduates from Newcastle's 2007 Flegg side likely to make an impact next year include halfback Joel Brown and centre Callan Richardson, who are former winners of the Knights' prestigious Carlson Club scholarship and Andrew Johns Medal.

"The big thing for me is just getting used to the guys and trying to see where their skill level is at, and that's been the main focus of our training trying to get them to a standard where we want them," Robinson said.

"I'm really hammering them about their basic skill levels and about how to prepare yourself to be a professional footy player.

"They're one step closer now, to a certain extent, and we've really upped the ante compared to what Flegg was as far as training, weights, off-field commitments and education goes.

"The light has started to come on in the last couple of weeks. I think they found it quite difficult early on and a couple of players fell by the wayside but, overall, we're going OK."

Robinson said the education process began on day one of training last month, as some players were unaware they would even be playing at interstate and international NRL centres such as Brisbane, Townsville, Melbourne and Auckland.

"We tried to say, hey, we're not just trying to get a good Flegg side for next year, we're trying to get to an intensity that that competition probably hasn't been at before. That's what the NRL wants, and it's definitely what we want as well," he said.

"It's not about them jumping straight from under 20s to first grade, it's about us being able to see the potential for them to be first-graders at the under-20 level."

Source: (Newcastle)