Former Queensland Origin star Chris Flannery has backed the Queensland Rugby League's move to introduce a state-wide under-20s competition in 2017 ahead of the expected dissolution of the National Youth Competition in 2018.
The QRL announced on Monday that an eight-week under-20s competition of teams aligned with Intrust Super Cup clubs would be conducted at the start of the season with a shortened FOGS Colts Challenge competition to follow for teams in Queensland's south-east. The Cyril Connell Cup under-16 competition will cease to exist with the 16s to take part in the State Junior Championships on the Sunshine Coast.
As CEO of the Sunshine Coast Falcons, Flannery has witnessed the benefits this year of under-20s teams being aligned with state cup franchises with the majority of the Storm's Holden Cup squad residing and playing their home games on the Sunshine Coast.
Flannery himself moved to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast as a teenager to play for the Roosters before progressing to reserve grade where at 19 years of age he was playing alongside seasoned first-graders such as Quentin Pongia and against other hardened campaigners.
By having a closer association with state cup clubs in both Queensland and New South Wales in future, Flannery has no doubt that it will create a more clearly defined pathway for the elite youngsters emerging in the game.
"I was playing with guys like Quentin Pongia who was coming back from injury and a really high calibre of player in reserve grade, whether they were there for injury or whatever," Flannery told NRL.com.
"We were playing on a weekly basis against guys who had played heaps of NRL so I learnt pretty fast, and you had to.
"Now with the under-20s competition a lot of players stay in that under-20s competition for a lot longer than what I'd prefer to see.
"They need to be playing against men to develop as quickly as possible."
A number of NRL clubs already push under-20s eligible players up into their affiliated clubs in their respective Intrust Super state league competitions with promising Storm duo Jake Turpin and Charlie Galo getting valuable exposure to senior football at the back-end of the year with the Falcons.
With the majority of their players coming from rugby league strongholds in Queensland and New South Wales, the Storm established a Sunshine Coast Academy in 2015 and then relocated their under-20s team this year and Flannery has seen the positive outcomes it can deliver.
Youngsters have been able to reside in relatively familiar surroundings much closer to family while juniors coming through the ranks on the Sunshine Coast have been exposed to even higher levels of coaching expertise.
The Storm's Holden Cup team played all but one of their home games at Sunshine Coast Stadium this year – far from the hype of an NRL curtain-raiser – and Flannery believes it is that structure that will help correct outside perceptions of the current pathway.
"There's a perception with the NYC and playing before the NRL and things like that," said Flannery, who played 10 Origin games for the Maroons.
"We definitely need to try and fix up that pathway and get the state league as the genuine second-tier to the NRL and people on the outside need to be able to see that.
"Having an NYC team on our doorstep this season has put us in a really good position for when the NYC does dissolve and hopefully the ones that are here already that we have built a relationship with already can fold straight into our Sunshine Coast Falcons under-20s side.
"We're probably 12 months ahead of the game but it's working really well at the moment and it's been great for those players to be able to play NYC and still stay at home."
This article first appeared on NRL.com