By BRODIE SCOTT:
As the sport of Rugby League continues to strengthen its strong bond with the Australian community, the more remote and country areas of the nation are starting to reap some of the rewards.
Country areas, such as the Western division of New South Wales, are in the midst of a boom in terms of development, resources, opportunity and involvement from the national competitions clubs.
A combination of the larger national competition clubs moving out of their own local recruitment areas to find talented youngsters, and the increased revenue created from broadcast rights deals at the top level, have prompted those in charge of spending to allow more funding for the country divisions.
The National Rugby League (NRL) and what was formally known as the Australian Government Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations are the providers of funding for development programs for youth in the country areas of NSW, however this is for growing of the game at the grassroots level, not for elite development.
The NRL’s annual report for the year of the 2013 season reveals that the new five-year deal has increased broadcast revenue 118% since the previous year, and has lead to the increased club and state affiliate funding of 57 and 18 percent respectively.
The now re-branded Department of Education and the NRL provide the western area of NSW along with others, funding for resources including equipment and the payment of development officers for programs that engage and support young people through sport.
Following on from the general development of the sport and the fostering of youth initiatives comes the training of athletes to give them the opportunity to compete at the game’s highest level.
New player development strategies introduced over the last three to five years include the Country2City camp, a longer representative season for regional teams, a satellite program enabling coaches to monitor the improvement of athletes on a program from different locations, as well as other internally funded weekend camps for representative teams coordinated within the regional area or in association with an NRL club.
Country2City camp organizer and NRL Education and Welfare officer, Andrew Ryan, said this camp, like many others, is aimed at allowing these talented youngsters to make the most of their opportunity.
“The players attending are potentially in sight of an NRL Career and we would like to equip them with as much insight as we can about the NRL and the challenges of relocating,” Ryan said.
“The young men will be provided with a support network and information to handle the challenges that a Rugby League career can throw should the opportunity arise.”
With programs similar to this being conducted amongst NSW country divisions, it is clear that there are some strong opportunities being provided for country talent to achieve a career in the sport.
Country Rugby League Western Region Manager, Peter Clarke, said that these programs and initiatives that are now becoming a common part of the rugby league player’s journey are new, and if the clock was taken back ten years the case would be very different, however it’s not quite perfect.
“It definitely is the case that opportunities are greater in the city but we are trying to bridge the gap in terms of pumping resources into regional areas” he said.
Mr. Clarke said that one of the most important resources available to these talented youngsters is regular mentoring by experienced coaches.
“The (western) academy program has more access to higher level coaches than it did probably five to ten years ago, but still it’s not that consistent training like the Sydney clubs.”
Despite this dramatic improvement in the development of country talent, there is still a substantial difference in the opportunities available to country kids and their city counterparts, Penrith Panthers Recruitment Manager, Jim Jones, said that the main reason this is the case is because of resources.
Jones identified several areas including weights programs, high performance sprint training, dietary structures, and the ability to closely monitor progress is something that is difficult for many regional areas to copy.
With a more in depth look at just the western region of country NSW it becomes clear that elite coaching and a high frequency of training under these types of coaches are the determining factors that differentiate the region from the city.
An alarming statistic for rugby league is that despite there being around three times the amount of people in Sydney compared to the rest of NSW, the CRL has over ten thousand more registered juniors than its NSWRL counterpart.
What this opens up is an enormous debate about what should be done to boost the resources of the country or attempt to secure more people from the city to play the game where the resources are already available.
Many of those involved in the game believe that it is time for the country kids to get a fair go and be given the resources to take that extra step in their rugby league career.
Penrith Panther’s Jim Jones believes that despite the obvious disadvantages facing country players, the ones that get through are in some ways tougher and more willing to take on challenges to get to the next level because of the experiences and obstacles they have had to overcome in their journey so far.
“Very rarely do I bump into a country kid who hasn’t got a good attitude… I love scouting those kids because they give a real good balance to your team because nine out of ten times they’re really dedicated, they’re really hungry and they’re good kids from good country footy families.”
Another key point mentioned by Jones was that despite local kids in the Sydney city competitions having a huge variety of resources and opportunities at their doorstep, many do not make the most of them, often missing training sessions and camps.
Jones said that on the other hand a country talent who may have to dedicate a whole weekend to travelling down and back for a camp are willing to do so and most have strong support from their families, their local club, and their region.
As a result of these reasons Mr. Jones believed that the work already being done to strengthen the opportunities of country kids is essential, and he gave his support for even more to be done.
NRL Game Development Manager for Western NSW Kyle Myers had similar views on the issue and revealed interesting information about country player opportunities.
The NRL development manager mentioned he spoke to the St George Illawarra Dragons salary cap auditor and said “two equal players, one from the country and one from their district, the district will get chosen because it’s going to save them $30’000 on average.”
Mr. Myers explained that this was before the country player even took the field because of relocation costs, housing, food, and education or work services, among others.This provides another reason for country Rugby League officials to increase the resources locally.
Despite his criticisms of the systems in place, Myers agreed that many in the Rugby League community, including himself, are trying to change this and he is starting to see the results.
“There’s definitely more programs in place for country kids to achieve their dream of playing in the NRL. It’s working, as proven in the stats with how many players from the bush are playing in the NRL now compared to 5-10 years ago.”
“The country team have won the city v country game more over the last ten years than the city so that probably shows something there as well, and we always have higher numbers in the NSW state of origin team from the country compared to the city as well.”
Myers also stated that the Rugby League governing body and the national competition teams are also doing their part.
“The NRL and the NRL clubs are definitely trying to equal and trying to create further opportunities and it is evident that we are getting more opportunities out in the country but its still definitely not equal. It’s still not equal but its caught up a lot compared to five to ten years ago.”
Although its inception has only been recent, the under 20’s national competition has developed to be a nursery for country players chasing a career in the NRL.
Peter Clarke said that even after the first two weeks of the competition for 2014 there were 10 players from his western division playing in the under 20’s competition as well as a handful of players competing in at the NRL level.
“If you talk to me in five years time, you’ll see the difference in opportunity I think it’ll be vast compared to what there is now because of the resources were willing to put into it.”
As we know, all Australian sports and the ways in which game development is managed will continue to change well into the future, giving our talented youngsters greater opportunities to achieve their dreams.
With the ongoing developments in country regions it may only be a matter of time before we see our Rugby League world dominated by players from bush.