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Former Canberra Raiders under 20s captain Zac Woolford believes the National Youth Competition should stay in its current format amidst a review of rugby league’s pathways.

Woolford says the pressure of cracking the top grade likely would have contributed to NYC players taking their own lives in recent seasons.

The 20-year-old says stronger support networks being placed around young men would offset the rate of suicides in the game and wider society.

“If you don’t have a good support network behind you it can definitely be tough,” Woolford said.

“I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for some of those boys who are out on their own trying to earn a living with young kids and whatnot.

“The pressure of making the top grade definitely would have had a big contribution to those incidents.”

Canterbury Bulldogs-bound Woolford says he is “one of the lucky ones” having signed a contract to play professional rugby league.

Woolford has watched close friends fall by the wayside as they struggle to deal with falling short of the top level.

“It’s not a very nice thing knowing that you’re playing for your livelihood and that sort of thing,” Woolford said.

“It’s a pretty terrible feeling, ‘this could be the end.’”

Rugby League Players Association General Manager of Player Relations Clint Newton says the game must be well equipped to deal with the issue.

The former NRL player believes the small percentage of players that graduate to first grade is cause for players to have fall back plans should football not work out.

“The reality is that not everyone will [play first grade],” Newton said.

“But we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got enough systems in place through the education and wellbeing structure – that’s arguably one of the best in the world – and its ability to help players transition from school to a fulltime athlete.

“Or [for] those that don’t end up pursuing that, trying to make sure that they’re given as much opportunity as possible to have some confidence in succeeding in life without having football as their plan A.

“As Phil Matthews, the wellbeing manager at the Knights, always said to me, it’s okay to have two plan A’s and I think that’s really important.”

It is crunch time for young players all around the league with the end of the season and fresh contract negotiations looming.

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