Last weekend I ticked off an item on my bucket list.
A trip to Central West New South Wales and Bathurst to watch my beloved Penrith Panthers take on Canberra Raiders, 25 years after they met in the 1991 Grand Final.
After watching many years of football at suburban grounds and in purpose-built stadiums, I experienced NRL ‘regional footy’ for the first time.
It was a great experience, the match drama-charged with the Panthers winning 19-18 over Canberra.
The game forever remembered with another Ricky Stuart post press conference spray. His side trailing 18-6 stormed home but were pipped by Peter Wallace’s late field goal.
Penrith are in the middle of a five-year agreement to play games out of Carrington Park. In 2014 the Sharks won 18-16 over the ‘home’ side and in 2015 it was the Panthers prevailing 40-0 over the Titans.
Attendance figures are below what would be expected at a Sydney suburban ground with an average 7,261 attending the three matches to date.
You could argue that the 6,721 that attended Carrington Park might not have been any larger at Pepper Stadium given the fixture has drawn less than 8,100 three of the last four occasions.
In reality it’s not about the crowds.
It’s about the connection of bringing a billion dollar professional competition closer to regional NRL territory.
A good proportion of the Bathurst crowd were bi-partisan. Locals who supported the Dragons or the Tigers but wanted to get up close and personal to some of the stars of the game like Matt Moylan, Jamie Soward, Jarrod Croker and Josh Papalii.
I loved the atmosphere and the event at Bathurst.
You could see the amount of effort Bathurst Regional Council and local volunteers from the Bathurst Panthers Rugby League club put into making the day a success both on and off the field.
Despite the heavy rain and looming clouds around the ground during the day, Carrington Park was in immaculate condition.
Penrith’s commitment to the regional footy is matched only by five other clubs in the competition.
To me this is disappointing.
For the purposes of the argument Central Coast Stadium is considered rural because it’s not a permanent ‘home’ venue for any of the sixteen clubs in the competition.
The Roosters took their round five clash against the Warriors to Central Coast Stadium. Round eleven will see the Warriors head to Taranaki when they host Canberra. South Sydney travel to Barlow Park to face the Titans and in round 17 to Perth when they face North Queensland Cowboys. Manly also head to Perth to play the Warriors in round 19. Parramatta have their annual game in Darwin where they take on the Titans.
This weekend’s City vs Country fixture at Tamworth is the third and final rural match to be played in New South Wales this year, all within ten weeks of the competition starting.
Scully Park will be sold out for the event.
It’s easy to argue trial matches are taken bush, but this can be counteracted with the lack of NRL stars playing in these matches as they are hold back for the actual competition.
I’m now convinced NRL clubs should try harder to find a regional base at least once a year. That includes Brisbane who draw the biggest crowds in the game and would be reluctant to take any home game away from Suncorp.
There’s no reason for regional venues like Lavington Sports Ground in Albury, Stadium Mackay in Central Queensland, Sunshine Coast Stadium or Coffs Harbour International Stadium can’t be used for NRL fixtures.
Melbourne could do a sneaky and send a game down to Geelong before the AFL season proper starts.
With the NRL under new management headed by Todd Greenberg, it’s time to reconnect with the fans both in the cities and out bush.
Clubs should take a punt on crowd figures and potential loss of earnings for the good of the game.
Bathurst are keen to continue their agreement past 2018 for the Panthers to play one game a year in their town.
Let’s hope Penrith continue to serve the bush like they have since 2014.