Young talent taking the NRL by storm

The staggering success of the Toyota Cup will be on show in Round 21 of the NRL Telstra Premiership with a whopping 43% of players coming through the National Youth Competition.

Of the 290 players named this weekend, 124 have played in the under 20s competition.

The incredible rise of Bulldogs sensation Ben Barba, currently leading the race for the Dally M player of the year, is testament to the grounding the Toyota Cup is providing young players.

Barba has set the Rugby League world alight with some breath-taking performances, setting up length of the field tries and saving just as many in miraculous fashion. For those who watched him star in the inaugural Toyota Cup season, it hasn’t come as any surprise.

Barba played 26 games in the Toyota Cup across 2008 and 2009, scoring 38 tries, making 22 try-assists, 29 line-breaks, 16 line-break assists and 133 tackle-breaks.

He has brought that confidence to first-grade.

This season in his 18 NRL games, Barba has scored 14 tries, made 19 line-breaks, 13 line-break assists, 15 try-assists and 112 tacklebreaks.

They are incredible statistics.

But while the Toyota Cup often gets applauded for the young attacking players to have emerged from its ranks, it often unfairly gets criticised due to a perceived lack of opportunity for front-row forwards, who are thought to mature later in their careers.

Warriors prop Ben Matulino became the first under 20s graduate to reach the 100 NRL games milestone, he has been a backbone of his team in recent seasons and has also represented New Zealand 12 times.

His teammate in the Warriors engine-room, Russell Packer, is just five games away from the milestone himself. Proving the Toyota Cup is a decent breeding ground for the big men as well.

They join a host of forwards to have come through the competition including; Shaun Fensom, Tony Williams, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sam Kasiano, Alex Glenn, Trent Merrin, Sam McKendry, Tim Mannah, Matt Gillett and Aaron Woods to name a few.

Toyota Cup Programs Manager Tony McFadyen declared the numbers show the competition has been a huge success.

“It is very pleasing to see so many players coming through the 20s competition and making it to the NRL,” McFadyen told NRL.com.

“It shows that the Toyota Cup is a great pathway for junior athletes to make it as a professional sportsman.

“Most of the players are continuing their studies and furthering their education as well, so it is great to see them excel both on and off the field. It is a unique concept in Australian sport and we are proud of all that is has achieved.”

The under 20s competition is also proving to be a great place for local kids to become local heroes, giving the NRL an elite feeder competition.  

This week the Brisbane Broncos will field 13 Toyota Cup graduates against the Parramatta Eels on Monday night at Suncorp Stadium, 12 of those are home grown talent.

The Canberra Raiders will field 12 graduates, 10 of whom are local talent, while the Warriors, long-time supporters of the National Youth Competition concept will field 11, all of whom have come through the Warriors NYC system.

The invention of the Toyota Cup has been hailed the major turning point in New Zealand that has transformed the Warriors into a genuine rugby league powerhouse.

The Toyota Cup has become pivotal to the Warriors in the battle for the hearts and minds of aspiring New Zealand athletes. They are the only club to have made the finals ever single year since the competition’s inception.

When Sebastine Ikahihifo makes his debut against Manly in Perth on Saturday night, he will become the 21st Toyota Cup graduate to go on and represent the Warriors in first-grade.

Former Warriors first-grade assistant, now Toyota Cup coach John Ackland has seen the revolution at the club firsthand.

Ackland, the 2011 Toyota Cup coach of the year, believes the national youth competition is more important to his club than the Australian-based counterparts.

“We have to take it seriously, we have come to understand that it is where we get our players from,” Ackland told NRL.com.

“It is a lot easier than having to go to Australia and buy players.

“The Toyota Cup has certainly impacted on the depth that we have in the squad now, it has been a byproduct from it. To compete at NRL level you need that depth and we have found that depth through the Toyota Cup.”

You can follow Andrew Bryan on twitter: @AndrewBryan321