Starting young and becoming a junior rugby league star are not the only ways to the top of the NRL, new research has found.
Nearly half of the National Rugby League's professionally contracted players were interviewed for the study which found, contrary to popular belief, early representative selection, intensive early age training regimes and specialisation while young are not prerequisites for making it at the elite level.
New Zealand Warriors high-performance coach and former West Tigers' winger Balin Cupples led the University of Sydney study, which examined the careers of 224 professional NRL players from 11 of the 16 clubs, as part of his PhD thesis.
He found there are multiple pathways to making it in the NRL and that many professional players didn't start playing until later in their childhood.
"Achievement at junior and youth tiers and representative levels is not a necessity for long-term success," Mr Cupples told AAP on Monday.
"Nearly 40 per cent of the professional players in our study reported a less intensive and delayed investment path."
Mr Cupples said for many of these players their younger years were spent playing a variety of sports until the age of 12, with lower levels of training and a reduced involvement in league competitions before the ages of 17 to 20.
"They played a lot less competition, they train a lot less in these developmental years but by late-adolescence, they have a higher efficacy of training," he said.
Although there are benefits to starting young, Mr Cupples said the findings show aspiring NRL players should keep playing, even if they don't experience early success straight away.
"Stay in the game (even) if you miss out on those early representative squads, which could be for a number of reasons - physical, emotional, cognitive development," he said.
"That's a message for players, it's a message for junior coaches, talent scouts and obviously parents as well - just keep encouraging these junior players."
Rugby league is one of the most popular sports in Australia with more than 770,000 participants from recreational to senior levels, the NRL said.
Despite age restrictions on professional contracts, players often focus on rugby league from an early age in the hope of securing a place in an academy squad or a specialised rugby league secondary school, which are often stepping stones to a professional career.
The study was published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.
This article first appeared in news.com.au, written by Aaron Bunch.