NRL pushes to stamp out 17-year-olds

It wasn’t for him, but rugby league great Brad Fittler can understand the NRL’s proposal to outlaw junior prodigies from the first-grade ranks.

In one of several recommendations revealed on Tuesday in a proposed blueprint to take the game forward over the next decade, the NRL’s head of game strategy and development Shane Richardson moved to stamp out school-age stars from making their top-grade debut until the year of their 19th birthday.

Such a restriction would have delayed the start of Fittler’s brilliant career, as well as the likes of dual international Israel Folau and Newcastle sensation Sione Mata’utia, who last year became Australia’s youngest-ever Test representative.

Fittler, who made his first-grade debut for Penrith at just 17, remains NSW’s youngest-ever State of Origin player after first taking on Queensland as an 18-year-old in 1990.

“I was ready,” Fittler told AAP on Tuesday.

But the Panthers, Sydney Roosters, Blues and Kangaroos legend admits the NRL must have done their homework if they want to hold gifted youngsters back.

“It doesn’t seem fair to a really good 18-year-old but I don’t understand the reasoning behind it, so it’s very hard to offer a proper opinion,” Fittler said.

“But if it means keeping kids in the bush and stuff like that, there’s probably some merit in it.”

Under Richardson’s recommendation, a player could still feature in first grade at 18 as long as they were turning 19 that season.

But gone would be the days of 17 and 16-year-olds – like Cronulla and Parramatta prop Adam Ritson, who retired from the game at 20 after suffering brain damage, South Sydney three-quarter Paul Mellor and, in more recent times, Gold Coast backline utility Jordan Rankin – appearing in the NRL.

“The information we’ve gathered about player welfare is that decisions should be made about their future when they turn 18,” Richardson said.

“People will give you anecdotal evidence of Brad Fittler playing etc, but it’s a small minority compared to the welfare issues of the greater majority.”

Richardson said the age restrictions would not have effected any player who featured in the 2015 NRL season.

Richardson’s blueprint also included increasing NRL squads to 36 players, restructuring the National Youth Competition into a state-based under-20s competition and revamping and upgrading the State League into a Platinum League.

The proposals will be discussed with the Rugby League Players Association and state bodies before being potentially enacted in 2018.

A national reserve-grade system will be implemented in the form of a northern and southern conference, while the current under-20s competition would revert to state-based competitions.

Richardson stressed, though, that did not automatically mean clubs such as Canterbury, St George and Cronulla would be forced to merge at a reserve-grade level as had been suggested this week.

Instead, a committee would decide how to best determine the make-up of teams.

“We want to give everyone the opportunity to play in the NRL whether they come from the country, New Zealand, the affiliated states, Pacific or anywhere else in the world of rugby league,” Richardson said.

“This strategy is not intended to squeeze anyone out of the game – it is designed to include more participants than ever before.”

The process by which rookies are signed by clubs would also change, with every team allowed to sign three rookies each season on two-year contracts.

Each club’s 36-man squad – a significant increase from the current 25 counted in the salary cap – would then include six players on rookie contracts.

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