IT was born from a desire to retain players, but the winning coach of the inaugural Western under 21s competition feels it now shapes as a key in the step to the more elite ranks.
While Tyson Medlyn is unsure at this stage if he will return to guide the under 21 St Pat's side in their Western title defence in 2022, he is delighted that the intent is to make the competition a permanent part of the calendar.
He thinks it will help more players from Group 10 and Group 11 progress to the programs run by NRL clubs.
"A hundred percent I think this competition is important, you only have to look at Penrith Panthers' team and realise how many juniors have come through not only Group 10 and Group 11, but country footy and been successful," Medlyn said.
"You look at guys like Isaah Yeo, the Forbes Ferrari Charlie Stanies, Matt Burton - there's five or six country guys in the first grade Penrith squad and then we have couple of boys from Pat's that have gone down there as under 18s players and are still with them and guys from other clubs in Group 10 and Group 11.
"If the number one NRL team can see quality out here, then a 21s comp is probably going to be a pathway for our kids to keep going.
"If we can create a strong pathway where there are a few boys going down each year, the younger boys coming through see that and then they think 'That's something I can do because these boys before me have done it'. It gives them that bit of confidence."
The first edition of the Western under 21s competition involved six teams - St Pat's, Orange CYMS, Dubbo Macquarie, Dubbo CYMS, Forbes Magpies and a Woodbridge Cup outfit.
The standard was impressive, especially in the grand final St Pat's won against Dubbo CYMS, and surprised many given it was played in the pre-season following a year where most senior football across the Central West had been cancelled due to COVID-19.
Though Medlyn set high standards for his Saints and anticipated stiff opposition, he admits he had not expected the quality of football that was produced.
He was also impressed by the flow-on effect in the season proper.
"I didn't want to have low expectations because that lowers our training, so I always have high expectations of every competition I go into just to give ourselves a standard of how we want to train," he said.
"I knew that it would be tough, Dubbo have awesome juniors, Forbes have won grand finals in Group 11, Orange CYMS have always got good players and Woodbridge Cup could come up with anything.
"I didn't underestimate it, but I was surprised with the level of footy that was played.
"I think about 60 percent of our 21s squad played first grade this year, there were also a few boys that were unlucky they missed out, but they were playing in the same positions as some of our really key seniors."
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