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By the time an 18-year-old Ashley Harrison made his NRL debut in 2000, he had already spent a year playing against men in the Toowoomba A-Grade competition.
Two of the game's most seasoned veterans have urged the NRL to reconsider the developmental pathway for players coming into first grade, insisting that the current under-20s competition is not adequate preparation for what lies ahead.

Between them Ashley Harrison and Brent Tate have 29 years and 502 game of first grade experience and shared the same grounding as talented youngsters coming through the Broncos junior system.

And while their exploits at the under-age level was what attracted talent scouts to sign them to contracts, it was being thrust into the Toowoomba A-Grade competition as 17-year-olds that accelerated their rugby league education.

In 1999 and 2003 the Broncos entered their Colts team into the Toowoomba competition – winning on both occasions – and Harrison credits that exposure to footy against hardened locals for preparing him for an NRL debut in 2000.

"We had a really great team and it was tough, we used to get bashed, but we were very competitive," said Harrison, who played alongside Tate, Corey Parker, Dane Carlaw, Carl Webb and Brad Meyers in that 1999 Colts team.

"We used to travel to places like Oakey and all those out-lying towns and play against some tough teams and some tough heads but it groomed you for what was coming up. I copped plenty of hammerings I know that."

Adds Tate: "I don’t think there was a better platform for us growing up, learning how to play tough as a young 17-year-old playing first grade when you’re playing against guys who are very experienced at Queensland Cup level.

"You had to hold your own, you had to stand up and be counted because if you didn't, those guys would put you in your place straight away.

"That’s why there is a big question mark about the 20s now, because while it’s a great competition I don’t think you get the real toughness that you get when you’re a young man playing against fully grown men.

"There’s no better tuition than when you’re a young kid playing against men, getting knocked around and bashed around. It makes you tough and you've got to play tough otherwise you don’t make it. I’d love to see reserve grade back.

"I absolutely think bringing reserve grade back is a must, because we have guys who are playing at the Queensland Cup level that are very good players.

"I think a reserve grade would be great. I definitely think there’s that tier [of players] that aren't 20 that aren't playing first grade yet, there are a lot of those players around."

Many NRL clubs currently move their under-20s players between the Holden Cup and either the NSW Cup or Intrust Super Cup competitions in readiness for an NRL call-up.

And both Tate and Harrison believe that the exposure and attention they are given at such a young age is giving the game's emerging talent a sense that they have already 'made it'.

"I'd love to see it go full circle and go back to the days where first grade is 1-17, second grade is wearing 20s and 30s and third grade's wearing 40s and 50s," said Harrison, currently sidelined with a neck injury.

"The spectators used to love going to the games early and watching the 22s play and then watching reserve grade and watching the progression that these kids have through to first grade. I thought it was probably the best system in terms of grooming kids for first grade."

Tate recognised the positives that the under-20s competition has brought since its inception in 2008 but would go a step further even than Harrison and hold back the club colours until a player reaches first grade.

"When I came through, we weren’t wearing the Cowboys colours or the Broncos colours, you had to earn that right once you got to first grade. At the moment, I think those young guys get the sense that they have already made it because they’re wearing those colours," said Tate, who will miss the Cowobys' clash with the Raiders on Sunday due to Origin duty.  

"Everything we got coming through we had to earn. You had to earn your locker at the Broncos; I think a lot of guys these days get it so early.

"Maybe we bring reserve grade back and it balances some of those things out, I'm not sure. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all negative but I definitely think as a player growing up, I got a lot more benefit out of playing tougher and older guys than playing 20s that’s for sure."
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