NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 09: Blake Taaffe of the Rabbitohs passes during the round 17 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the North Queensland Cowboys at McDonald Jones Stadium, on July 09, 2021, in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

'Did you know the Central Coast produces some of the best juniors in Australia?'

This rhetorical question has reverberated throughout local weekend footy fields during much of my junior rugby league career on the Central Coast.

Bear in mind, it was coming from a pretty biased crop of observers. But I do believe they were right.

You'd be surprised with how many young Central Coast juniors are emerging as pivotal cogs in the modern rugby league machine.

When we talk about some of the great sporting towns and cities in Australia, particularly those that produce rugby league talent, I'd be remiss not to mention the inland city of Wagga Wagga or the regional town of Rockhampton in Central Queensland. But, why is the Central Coast rarely considered in this pantheon?

Nestled between the Sydney Metropolitan and Newcastle, Central Coast juniors are often shipped off, as early as 15 years old, to these neighbouring cities with promises of better pastures. By the time their names are even mentioned on an NRL roster, where they played junior football seems secondary.

Simply put, the allure of signing a contract with a club that fields an NRL team every week is often too much for a young budding player to pass up. And, I don't see a revival of the Central Coast Bears happening any time soon.

Research done by the University of Sydney in 2014 revealed that where you live plays a critical role in the success of your rugby league career. The findings showed that the location of the first club a player represented was key in determining their chances of becoming an NRL player.

Apparently, those who played their junior football in smaller country/regional towns or cities found a greater chance of success than those in major cities.

It was revealed that there were several factors that contributed to this outcome, including less interference from parents, more open space and a more stable relationship with a coach to guide, motivate and encourage players.

The study also communicated that these towns/cities "nurtured” young players who would later go on to attain professional status.

While he also spent a bit of time playing his junior football in La Perouse, one of the more recent Central Coast success stories is Entrance Tigers junior Blake Taaffe, who made his first start in the NRL as fullback for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, as they easily handled the North Queensland Cowboys this past Friday.

Taaffe's maiden NRL start coincided with NAIDOC week, a celebration that remains close to the young fullback's heart through his Indigenous heritage.

A representative of the U15's NSW Indigenous side, Taaffe not only represents the glowing emergence of Central Coast talent, but the lively new era of Indigenous players within the NRL.

BLAKE TAAFFE
Fullback
Rabbitohs
ROUND 17 STATS
1
Tries
3
Tackle Breaks
180
All Run Metres

I recently spoke to Taaffe, who made his official NRL debut coming off the bench against the Broncos in Round 15, about his experience as a junior rugby league player from a smaller town/city and what it meant to represent both La Perouse and the Central Coast when he stepped out onto the field for the first time.

"I did feel like I was restricted at a young age playing on the Central Coast. I felt restricted because the Central Coast doesn't have an NRL feeder club based locally," Taaffe said.

"As I got older though I became aware that the Central Coast Centurions were a feeder club for the Sydney Roosters in 2015, which provided us coast kids the opportunity to chase a childhood dream and play in the NRL."

Taaffe said he felt the sentiment of coaches having more time and patience in these smaller towns and cities was true.

"I always had a lot of guidance and support at my junior club. I believe starting out in a smaller town is beneficial due to the time coaches have to offer," he said.

"I was fortunate enough to have many mentors throughout my early career. My dad, Darren, as he was the main reason for me starting in rugby league and I was fortunate enough to be coached by him also. This was beneficial to me as i was told not only the things i was doing right but also the things i needed to improve on as a player.

"I had many other coaches and mentors that played a role in my junior career including Chris Newman, Mark O'Meley and Alex Moore. All of them I still stay in contact with and speak too regularly."

Another Central Coast junior involved in Taaffe's momentous start this past Friday was North Queensland Cowboys five-eighth Scott Drinkwater.

Signing with the Melbourne Storm in 2015 for three years following a stellar campaign with the Australian Schoolboys team, Drinwater remained at the club under the tutelage of super-coach Craig Bellamy until being released and signed instantly by the Cowboys in 2019.

However, prior to this Scott was terrorising 'shark-park' on the Central Coast beachside town of Terrigal for his entire junior career.

Drinkwater now finds himself nearly 2000km away from his hometown and appears to be a centrepiece for the post-Thurston-era North Queensland Cowboys.

Drinkwater also found himself facing off against fellow Central Coast juniors - pictured left to right - Connor Watson (Kincumber Colts and Terrigal Sharks), Jacob Safiti (Entrance Tigers and Terrigal Sharks) and Daniel Safiti (Entrance Tigers and Terrigal Sharks) - in Round 16 when the Cowboys were beaten by the Newcastle Knights.

Growing up in a peri-urban region, those who are lucky enough to play their juniors in the Central Coast competition understand that while it's tough, it's sheltered, and if you elect to travel to those cities where the grass seems greener, the 'kids' you played before begin to look a lot like men.

Taaffe added that while it wasn't a huge "jump in talent" once he eventually left the coast, "the size of the kids I matched up against was definitely different".

Commonplace for young players from these smaller regions, Taaffe never thought he was one of the best in his age group, formulating an 'underdog' mentality from an early age.

"I always thought I was below the best players in my age group which probably wasn’t a bad thing I feel as though it made me hungrier as a player and made me train even harder to get where I am today," Taaffe said.

Ask any of the Central Coast juniors that are currently playing in the NRL, a familiar theme will be that 'chip' on their shoulder. Coming from a smaller region will do that to you.

It's obvious that the Central Coast is a breeding ground for modern NRL talent, and this next wave of stars, including Taaffe, will continue to showcase this for decades to come.

Soon, the sentiment of 'the Central Coast producing some of the best juniors in Australia' will reverberate well beyond the fences of the region's local weekend footy fields.

Central Coast coaches, junior clubs and the players that populate them should stand proud.