R M Cullen
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The NZ Warriors rugby league club does not have a teenage player development system. The club likes to say it does, but earlier this year Eric Watson, owner and chairman of the Warriors, was reported as saying "our weakness is in not having enough players who have been through the Australian system. You can't replicate it here" and "..there was no way to overcome the difference in standards between the Australian and New Zealand development systems."
Mr Watson is wrong. The NZ Warriors can develop talented rugby league players. They haven't done so in the past for two reasons - their development staff are not up to task, and they have no philosophy, no idea of who or what a development system is for and how those endpoints might be reached.
This year our academy picked up a youngster in the Warriors development group. He slipped though our system - we normally avoid these boys. During the season he attended training with the Warriors two nights a week. We had boys in that development group five years ago, There was no development, just two extra trainings a week. Nothing has changed, except that this year the boys also had sessions on 'values'. Values classes for sixteen year olds are a waste of time. Boys copy what they see, and the culture at the NZ Warriors this year was a losing culture.
It might seem obvious, but the main beneficiaries of a club development system should be the players involved. The Warriors development system has always been about the club, not the boys. Inviting a 15 year old to join the 'development' group gives the lad the impression he has been 'signed' and can't go anywhere else. 'Development' at the NZ Warriors is just a way of ring-fencing talent.
The NZ Warriors development system should attempt to identify those 14 and 15 year olds who might play fifty top-side games. All members should have a personalised development plan. The opportunity should be taken in the development programme to develop the mental toughness so lacking in the first grade team. To paraphrase Eric Watson 'When the going gets tough, this team gives up.'
The first step is recruitment. At present this is by invitation, and invitations are extended to boys who have developed early (and are therefore bigger and stronger) and who show attacking skill. Neither early physical development nor attacking skill at age 14-15 are reliable predictors of future first grade play. There are predictive tools around now that do far better than the intuition of former players.
The second step is the development of personal development plans for each of the lads in the development group. The NZ Warriors have historically been very weak at this, even with their first grade players. These will focus on off-season (pre-Christmas) and pre-season (after Christmas) gym work and skills development. At the end of the season this year, the boys in the development group were just told it was over for the year, and the club would be in touch!!
Then, there are the bells and whistles to a development programme. We put a huge amount of effort into ensuring our boys get their driver licenses, and open a bank account. Both these are large hurdles for young men in South Auckland. We spend a lot of time teaching our boys that they are targets for the police, for the media, and for wannabes.
But the biggest thing for a NZ Warriors development programme is instilling mental toughness. I would suggest two approaches. The first is to enter a NZ Warriors under 16 development team in the Auckland Rugby League under 18 comp, and an U17/18 team in the Under 20 competition. Playing in their own age group, these boys are able to switch off for periods and still be in a winning team.
The second approach is to require these boys to confront their frustrations. We have done this with our development boy by insisting he gives his end of year external exams a good nudge. He 'not achieved' in all of his mock exams, despite drawing a most excellent cat on his biology paper. Unfortunately, nothing in the exam required the drawing of a cat. Over the last week we have had water bottles punched off the table, complaints of a sore brain, loud expressions of hate for school, and so on. The turning point came when he was asked 'Are you finding this tough?' "Yes" 'Well, we'll finish up then. Give up. Go home. That's what a NZ Warrior does when things get tough.' This morning the lad said, 'Now that I'm studying I'm looking forward to my exams. Fifty-fifty anyway.'