Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent
Three thousand junior rugby league players on the Sunshine Coast can now see a direct pathway to playing alongside some of the greats of the game after the Melbourne Storm and Sunshine Coast Falcons formalised a three-year partnership on Tuesday.
The Storm already has feeder-club ties to Intrust Super Cup powerhouse Easts Tigers and that affiliation will continue in conjunction with the Sunshine Coast. The arrangement will ensure surplus Storm players will be split between the two Queensland-based clubs for youth development and injury cover purposes. The existing relationship with the Sharks in the NSW Cup – that delivered Cronulla a premiership in 2013 – will no longer continue. The Storm are also expected to announce they will play a trial match on the Sunshine Coast in February 2015.
The three-year deal shapes as a shrewd move for Melbourne as it will give the 2012 premiers access to over 3000 registered juniors on the Sunshine Coast as they look to discover a new generation of stars.
Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis and Dallas Johnson are some of the names to play through previous Storm feeder club Norths Devils when they held an affiliation in the early 2000s.
Five years ago when the high-flying Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles were in the middle of what would eventually be a victorious 2009 Queensland Cup season. An affiliation with Manly Sea Eagles was in full swing as some of the games' brightest young stars such as Daly Cherry-Evans, Trent Hodkinson, Tony Williams, Adam Cuthbertson and George Rose came out to play underneath the warm Queensland sunshine over a two-year period.
That partnership ended in 2011 and since then the Sunshine Coast, now known as the Falcons, have struggled to compete amongst Intrust Super Cup side's affiliated with NRL clubs with a Queensland rugby league record of 36-straight losses being the end result.
The Falcons snapped that losing streak over the weekend with a thrilling 26-24 victory over the Redcliffe Dolphins which coincided with Tuesday's feeder team announcement.
Over the past weeks the Falcons hierarchy of CEO and former NRL player Chris Flannery and chairman Ashley Robinson have been frantically negotiating a feeder team relationship with two NRL clubs – the Bulldogs and the Storm.
After attractive offers on both sides of the table, the Falcons decided to strike up a three-year deal with Melbourne Storm starting from 2015, a move Flannery says will give those who come up through the local junior competitions, as he did with the Kawana Dolphins, a greater opportunity to pursue their NRL dreams.
"For someone at Kawana or any local side to know that all they have NRL-quality players coming back to play for the team is just huge," Flannery told NRL.com. "It makes such an easy pathway for NRL now whereas before you had to leave your home, leave your parents and go to Sydney like I did. It's a tough battle moving from the Sunshine Coast, even to Brisbane.
"So if you can stay at home on the Sunshine Coast, keep studying or working around here and still have any opportunity to make the NRL, it's just a really good thing for all the local league players on the Coast.
"This partnership will provide our local junior and senior players with a genuine pathway to the NRL as well as bring high quality Melbourne Storm players to the region to continue their development in the Intrust Super Cup.
"It's just not a one-year deal it's a three-year deal. The Storm are investing in the region so it's just not a short term fix – it's a three-year investment for us to keep building."
Storm football manager Frank Ponissi also spoke of his excitement in teaming up with the Falcons and the Sunshine Coast region.
"We're looking forward to at least three years and hopefully longer of a great relationship for both parties and I think it's going to get stronger and stronger," Ponissi said.
"[The Sunshine Coast] is a rugby league area. It’s passionate about the game and it's a club that's got some great ambitions, great facilities and it's important to know we aren't taking over the club – we are looking to provide the players to make our team stronger and that's what the Falcons [deal] will give us."