HOW does rugby league stop promising young players from falling out of the game?

It is a question that has been the subject of much debate for many years, but now it is being brought into much sharper focus.

Over the past few weeks, many Super League clubs – Warrington Wolves included – have given talented youngsters the chance to shine as squads are managed amid a congested fixture schedule.

With many set to become too old for academy level but not quite ready for regular Super League action, however, the future is unclear.

The reserve grade system was brought back for 2020 to try and stop players in their late teens and early twenties from slipping through the cracks, but with every level of the game being rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, it is unclear as to whether or not it will return next year.

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The likes of promising young prop Eribe Doro are now too old to play academy rugby league. Picture by Mike Boden

There is also talk that the dual registration system – the partnering of clubs with lower-league teams to supply players with regular, competitive action – will not be in use when the wider game returns.

If this is the case, the choices for young players narrow further still and clubs face making calls on players as to whether or not to keep them on their books.

“I’m not going to shy away from it, it’s very difficult for them,” Warrington head coach Steve Price said.

“They work extremely hard through the week with nothing at the end of the tunnel.

“We keep enforcing that they need to be ready for when the opportunity arises.

“With the Covid cases jumping up, we just don’t know when that will come. We’ve got a few midweek fixtures to come yet as well.

“We’ve got a great bunch of young kids coming through who are working extremely hard, but I still don’t know the answer with which way the game’s going to go.

“There will be some difficult conversations ahead that’s for sure.”

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Steve Price. Picture by Mike Boden

The simple fact is the vast majority of players are not ready for regular Super League action at the age of 18 or 19.

Joe Philbin certainly wasn’t but was afforded the opportunity to develop elsewhere before getting his big break.

“Even pre-Covid, the young lads weren’t playing enough games whether for the reserves or on dual reg,” the Wire academy graduate said.

“Especially for middles like myself, it takes a while to become battle-hardened and ready to play week in, week out.

“I played at Swinton, had a year on loan at Rochdale and a year at North Wales Crusaders.

“I needed those years of playing games against men to be ready to play Super League week in week out.

“At the minute, we’ve got young kids who are just training.

“They got thrown in against Salford and they did an outstanding job but I think that’s down to the way we train.

“We play 13-on-13 at a high intensity. They know what’s expected of them and they were outstanding.

“Certainly there’s a lot of things that do need to be looked at for those players as you can lose a lot.

“Some players come good at 21 or 22 and we’re having to make a call on them at 19 years old.”

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Joe Philbin, right, benefitted from loans and the dual registration system as he developed. Picture by Mike Boden

So is keeping young players on the books and sending them out on loan the answer?

Potentially, but if Covid is still in the aether next year, will players be allowed to be in two “bubbles” at the same time – training full-time during the week before linking up with their part-time loan club at weekends?

So much is unclear at this stage, but the need for strong direction and creative thinking is evident.

“If there’s no reserve grade, they need to be playing in the Championship,” Price said.

“They need to be playing regular, hard-nosed rugby league for their development.

“Some come along quicker and others take a little more time.

“Last year they didn’t play a lot of games and this year we have been pretty much locked out because of Covid.

“Hopefully the powers above can come up with some really calculated smart decisions for our great game so these young kids can show their worth.”

Philbin continued: “It’s difficult – I don’t really know what the answer is.

“It’s going to be really tough for those young guys.

“We’ve got a really competitive squad and you’re not just handed Super League games here – you have to earn them.

“Steve can only pick 17 players every week. When we’ve got a 34-man squad, there’s going to be people unhappy.

“There needs to be something looked at as its going to affect the game down the line.”

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Ellis Robson will continue his development in League One next season with Ottawa Aces. Picture by Mike Boden