The Queensland Rugby League pathways exist to provide keen rugby league players right across the state the opportunity to develop into the best people and players possible.
The QRL statewide competitions - Cyril Connell Challenge, Auswide Bank Mal Meninga Cup, Harvey Norman Under 19s, Hastings Deering Colts, BMD Premiership and Hostplus Cup - give talented players the best chance of succeeding in the rugby league arena.
The State of Origin Game I Queensland Maroons squad alone boasted 394 Cup games between them. Add 15 with the inclusion of Beau Fermor, Corey Oates and Reece Walsh for Game II.
The 2021 season saw 24 Cup players – including the now Queensland Maroons star Selwyn Cobbo - and one from statewide competitions, move up to make their NRL debuts.
Despite the challenges COVID presented at the end of 2019 and 2020, 18 players – including several Queensland-eligible players – graduated from playing Cup in 2019 and the one game that went ahead in 2020 to the NRL in 2020. Three players also made the jump from statewide competitions to the NRL in 2020, including the always impressive Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.
Maroons star Christian Welch, who missed the 2022 Origin series through injury, said there was so much value in the way things were done in the Sunshine State. When he first went to Melbourne Storm, one year out of school, one of the players he went with was so homesick he only lasted 24 hours before returning to Queensland.
Welch, who grew up playing hockey, got his first taste of rugby league in under 13s at Gladstone Brothers before moving to Brisbane and playing at year at Carina Tigers. He then played rugby union at Villanova College.
“I just wanted to be a professional sportsperson," Welch said, adding Paul Bunn first noticed him at a Queensland Schoolboys trial at Ballymore.
Welch said Bunn offered him the opportunity to be part of a Brisbane Broncos talent identification squad that trained every few months. When he finished Year 12, Welch joined Easts Tigers - now Brisbane Tigers, down the road from home, and played in the centres in the Auswide Bank Mal Meninga Cup competition.
"They wanted to try and move me to become a forward. I had a tall frame, had to try and add some size to me... ended up playing back row and front row in the under 20s program at Easts at the end of that year then got signed to join the Storm Under 20s program out of that," Welch said.
"I actually felt good but on the flight, I flew down to Melbourne, with four others. One guy lasted 24 hours. Homesick, missing his family and everyone close to him… he lasted one day and then flew back to Brisbane.
"There’s certainly plenty of guys who have come into the system, struggled away from their support networks."
Welch said he was lucky to have been placed with a host family for his first year, who he remained close with to this day.
"They’re a bunch of Queenslanders actually.... they moved down to Melbourne because Alec, the son, made the Australian Ballet. He’s actually in the New York ballet now. First Australian male to do it. Didn’t teach me any dance moves unfortunately," Welch said.
"It was really important to have that support that first year because it’s a shock to the system moving away from family, but also the full on training. Melbourne Storm pre-season was crazy. Just getting used to that… just having little things like meals cooked, washing done… it helps so much."
Welch said Storm were good at looking after interstate players, having only had four Victorians play for the side during its 25 years. But stressed it wasn't the same everywhere and players needed the opportunity to develop close to home.
Welch said what drew him to rugby league, over rugby union, was there were strong sides right across the state - areas without NRL representation. He said, crucially, there was no NRL representation in Central Queensland, so QRL statewide competitions were imperative to keep rugby league's footprint healthy and keep as many people involved in the game as possible.
"You’ve got Central Queensland, obviously… so many mighty Maroons players have come through those areas... through the Capras," Welch said.
"That pathway really works well. When you look at even parts of North Queensland... Mackay is a very long way from Townsville. They’re part of the North Queensland Cowboys pathway, but the Mackay Cutters there do a really good job.
"I think (the notion of a national reserve grade) is a bit concerning. I think it might work for the clubs in Sydney, having a national reserve grade competition. But it will really short-change a lot of kids in rural areas from getting opportunities and resources.
"I think the way the model works, QRL running it, clubs like Mackay Cutters and Central Queensland Capras, I think they do a great job at developing kids and developing them while they’re still at home around their support networks, family and close friends.
"I think it’s great that the regional areas have really strong teams. It’s not just a city sport. I think the sport I grew up playing in rugby union… that’s probably one of the shortfalls of that, is it’s very tiered to the big city life, the big private schools. Those opportunities are pretty limited to what school you go to.
"With rugby league, the best thing about it is the way it’s set up with the competitions… in any part of Queensland, obviously there is some ups and downs in terms of resources and facilities, but generally speaking any part of Queensland, if you want to play footy, and you’re reasonable at football, you’re going to get a shot at it.
"It’s based on performance a lot of the time, and I like that about the club system we have in our sport.
"I think we all understand in rugby league, sport in general, in communities, how it works, and how it can bring people together regardless of your sex, the colour of your skin or your religion... they're really important organisations that really bond a community and bring people together, particularly in rural and regional areas."