THE Newcastle Knights won't be fielding a team in next season's Jersey Flegg (under-21) competition because they believe it is an unnecessary extra step on the pathway to the NRL.
The NSW Rugby League, which oversees a host of competitions below the elite level, has restructured its under-age groups for 2021 after all were put on hold this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jersey Flegg will change from under-20s to under-21s, while SG Ball switches from under-18s to under-19s, and Harold Matthews from under-16s to under-17s. The new age groups have been designed in the hope that junior rep players who missed out this year will get an opportunity next season.
But Knights officials believe that the next step for players who are too old for under-19s should be to compete at open-age level.
"We'll have teams in 17s, 19s and the State Cup, which we think is the right pathway for our contracted players," Knights CEO Phil Gardner told the Newcastle Herald.
"We think by 21, they should be ready to play in our State Cup side, be part of the NRL squad, if they're good enough, or they should be playing in the local league.
"We'd rather see them play for local sides, and strengthen that competition.
"They should be playing against men.
"Realistically, if there's a 19-year-old kid who is considered a potential NRL player, his next step should be playing in the State Cup.
"That's how players like Bradman Best have come up through our system."
Gardner said he expected other NRL clubs would pick and choose which NSWRL competitions they wanted to participate in.
"Some of them will enter 17s, 19s and 21s but they're looking at a shared team in the State Cup, with another club," he said.
"It's a real mixed bag."
Adding to the complexity of the situation, Gardner said the NSWRL had been unable to confirm any schedules yet.
Gardner said the Knights would still keep tabs on any players who finished under-19s and went back to the Newcastle RL.
In recent times, players like Nathan Ross, Josh King and Chris Randall have emerged from the district competition to play first grade for the Knights.
"If they go back and play for Souths or Wests or Lakes, we can still watch them in that system," Gardner said.
Gardner was optimistic that the Knights would soon be in a position to announce a construction company to build their new centre of excellence at District Park, Broadmeadow.
"Coronavirus has delayed the process, but we've started work on it, digging up the field," he said.
"Daracon have done that for us.
"The [construction] tenders are being assessed and we hope to have a winner in the very near future.
"We expect the whole thing to be finished by the end of September next year."
Meanwhile, Knights officials are still working through their NRL roster for next season, which is expected to be reduced from 36 to 30.
Since Newcastle's 2020 campaign finished last month, Tim Glasby and Aidan Guerra have retired, while Herman Ese'ese has joined Gold Coast, and Tautau Moga is expected to link with South Sydney.
A handful of off-contract Knights, including Josh King, Chris Randall and Mason Lino, face uncertain futures as clubs await clarity on their salary-cap situation for next season.