York City Knights chief Gary Thornton puzzled by late academy switch

First published in Sport

YORK City Knights boss Gary Thornton reckons another impending age change for academy teams at Championships level has plus-points for head coaches – despite the short notice and a “puzzling” inconsistency with the amendment at Super League level.

The Knights’ new under-19s squad for 2013 are to have their first official get-together tonight under coach and first-team player James Ford – when they will be told their competition structure is to change to U20s level. It had only moved from U18s to U19s at the end of last season.

Details have yet to be confirmed by Rugby Football League chiefs but The Press understands U20s teams will play at least 12 matches next season and be allowed to field two overage players in each game – possibly more with agreement from their opponents.

The system is a half-way house between the Championships’ two junior levels of last season – the U23 reserves, where teams could field up to five overage players, and the U18s.

One reason behind the change is that only six Championships clubs had U23s last season and only eight had U18s, two of whom (Sheffield and Featherstone) played in the corresponding Super League competition. Even fewer were to run such teams next year – the Knights being one of the clubs to withdraw their U23s – due to associated costs. More clubs expressed an interest in playing U20s than U19s and U23s.

Thornton said: “We’ve got a squad together to compete at U19s, and now it’s being changed to U20s.

“There are some pretty young fellas in there – 16 and 17-year-olds – who would have found it tough at U19s, so now it’s changing to U20s the balance of the side might change. Some of the younger lads might not get a lot of game time.

“It’s a late decision – and typical rugby league for changing things at short notice. But, looking at the reasons behind it, I can see why they’ve done it.”

Among the Knights’ first-team squad members who now also qualify for the academy team are Sam Orange, Ed Smith and Tyler Craig.

Thornton said: “From my point of view, if I’m selfish, it’s probably better as more of my first-team squad will qualify for U20s, and the ruling that allows us to play two overage players means I can keep them match-fit by giving them regular matches if they’re not getting into the first team.

“It helps with first-team preparations and serves a purpose in that respect – 20 is a more reasonable age to test players out for first-team level as very few U19s will push through.

“They’re also trying to reach a compromise between U23s and U19s.”

Super League, meanwhile, had U18s and U20s teams last year, but will have only U19s next year.

Thornton, the former U20s academy chief at Castleford, added: “It’s a bit confusing why they scrap U20s at Super League level, in favour of U19s, and introduce U20s at Championship level. Why is it an acceptable pathway for Championships but not for Super League? It’s puzzling.

“It’s a mystery to me why they changed it in Super League – it seems like a rushed decision based around saving costs.”

Ford will remain as coach of the Knights’ U20s, with development officer Jack Stearman as manager and Will Leatt, a youth coach at New Earswick ARLC, also involved.

Mick Cook, the former first-team boss who stood down as a first-team assistant-coach at the end of last season, is also poised to assist Ford.

The Press understands dual-registered players at partnership clubs – in York’s case, Hull – will be eligible to play U20s at Championships level.

Thornton added: “We can use Hull players in our U20s if we want to have a look at them before putting them in our first team. If they’re too old to play for Hull’s U19s, this gives us a chance to have a look at them.”

RFL director of performance and coaching Jon Roberts said: “As of November 30, only three teams in the Championships had committed to running an U23 team so the programme has had to be adapted for 2013 and the U20 competition was seen as the best solution.

“There would have been a negative impact on clubs if the U23 competition had been mandated, and the U20 competition meets clubs' objectives

“The structure will be reviewed again in 2013.”

• Castleford have signed prop Keith Mason, 30, on a one-year deal following his exit from Huddersfield.

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