NRL officials have described the new League Stars program to be launched on Tuesday as the missing link in the game’s participation and development pathways.
League Stars, which is a short-term introductory program for children aged 5-12, is aimed at exposing more players to rugby league through regular non-contact skills sessions held after school and in the holidays.
The new concept will rival the AFL’s Auskick or soccer’s Mini-Roos Kick-Off programs and has already proven successful with 76% of the 5817 boys and girls who took part in pilot programs being new to rugby league.
The League Stars program is now set to be rolled out across Australia, with James Tedesco, Isabelle Kelly, Jai Arrow, Meg Ward and Damien Cook acting as ambassadors, along with former stars Johnathan Thurston and Sam Thaiday.
"This is about getting participants through the door and getting them involved in rugby league," NRL head of development, participation and pathways Luke Ellis said.
"We need to provide a range of options for people and there is a segment of the market which is saying we are just keen on skill-based development programs for our kids.
"That is a space that rugby league, outside of the great work that our volunteers do at junior clubs, hasn’t been active in."
The program is designed to be flexible and affordable, with prices ranging from $49 for four weekly after-school sessions to $99 for eight sessions, and will be accessible at schools, clubs, community centres and public spaces.
Participants will receive a League Stars backpack, along with a ball, pump, t-shirt and stickers.
Ellis said the NRL was now able to a variety of options for people to be involved with rugby league through touch, tag and tackle versions of the game in an organised, recreational or developmental capacity.
Many players who start out playing a non-contact form of the game transition to tackle, with 36,900 new players taking up rugby league last season and playing numbers in NSW surpassing 100,000 for the first time.
"Our sport is about lots of things, and contact and tackling is just one element of what our sport offers," Ellis said.
"While we understand that there is a percentage of the market who want the tackle product, if we want to attract the highest number of participants at entry level a non-contact program is a really good option.
"We absolutely want them to join the tackle versions of our game but we know that builds a bridge between the parents and rugby league and we can then show them that there are options for them to be more deeply engaged."
The League Stars program is expected to assist the continued growth of female rugby league and officials said they are aiming for an even split of boys and girls.
NSWRL CEO David Trodden said League Stars addressed modern-day needs by enabling players to take part in the program after school rather on weekends.
"For too long we have looked at participation through the prism of weekend sport and that was alright in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s when people didn’t work Saturdays and Sundays but they do now," Trodden said.
"If we hope to grow participation we have to have a completely different approach which is designed to attract people to the game and retain them for as long we can in whatever form of the game they want to consume."