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NRL: Footy goes bush

The NRL has delivered more games to rural and regional areas as 2018 looms as a huge push to restore the flagging fortunes of the game in the bush.

For those who were watching at home, Tyrone Peachey’s late match-winning try for the Penrith Panthers against the Canberra Raiders will live long in the memory. For those lucky enough to pack out Carrington Park in Bathurst, the experience will have done plenty to keep the love of footy strong in the regional centre. With confirmation this week that the game is making an extended push in to the bush, the opportunity for more great memories is growing.

The hierarchy at NRL HQ made the bold promise that they would do more to cater for fans in remote and regional areas after the axing of the historic City vs Country fixture, and this week they’ve confirmed seven matches to be played at regional grounds across New South Wales and Queensland next season.

Venturing out of the city again

Five Sydney-based clubs have thrown their hand up to take games out of the big smoke in 2018, with the traditional pre-season Charity Shield between the St. George Illawarra Dragons and South Sydney Rabbitohs kicking things off in Mudgee at the well-catered Glen Willow Regional Sports Complex. The Dragons will also take a regular season NRL fixture to a central west New South Wales location, yet to be confirmed while the Bunnies will take a game to the Central Coast along with the Sydney Roosters, stretching Gosford’s continued association with the code.

The Penrith Panthers will take another game to Carrington Park in Bathurst as part of their 10-year agreement for one match each year to be taken to the venue while the Wests Tigers will set up camp in the famous country music town of Tamworth. The Gold Coast Titans have also joined the list of clubs upping their roots for games in 2018, confirming they will play games in Toowoomba and Gladstone.

The news comes off the back of a NSW government announcement in August that $100 million would be invested into regional sports infrastructure across the state, with the stated aim of improving sporting facilities and venues across New South Wales. 

Several key country rugby league venues are said to be included in the fund’s planning, which could pave the way for more regular season NRL games to be shifted away from the big metropolitan centres of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Grounds in Bathurst, Lithgow, Wagga, Tamworth, Queanbeyan, Dubbo, Goulburn and Grafton are thought to be amongst those who have put their hands up for increased investment and spending in their playing surfaces, training facilities and crowd-based facilities like grandstands, seating and scoreboards.

The NRL’s comes in the wake of plans to play up to four double-headers next season, in a strategy designed to minimise costs and maximise fan engagement, attendance, and revenue.

An opening round double-header slated for Perth appears likely to be followed by an ANZ Stadium based double-header which would see the Rabbitohs square off against the Sea Eagles and the Eels play the Sharks while Brisbane will again likely host a double-header, as will Auckland in New Zealand.

Bush footy on the recovery path

Moves toward providing competitive, regular season NRL football for regional centres in New South Wales and Queensland come as welcome news for bush footy advocates who have previously suggested the scrapping of the City vs Country clash was the final sounding call for the end of the game outside the big metropolitan centres.

One bush club official contacted by RealSport this week suggested the NRL had previously failed to show any real commitment to improving the standards of the game across the lower tiers, with Group footy in New South Wales particularly neglected, but that playing more NRL games outside of Sydney was a step in the right direction.

On the condition of anonymity, the official told me that, “footy in the bush has been dying for a long time.”

“It’s getting harder and harder to put teams together, keep guys focused and interested. Losing the City vs Country clash won’t have meant much in the big smoke, but out here, it was a chance to see some of the very best players live, in the flesh.

“I think proper NRL games out here would be a huge occasion for our small towns. They’ll be a real treat and have a great atmosphere, and I think they could be a good shot in the arm for our clubs as well.”

Although the City vs Country fixture had largely become irrelevant over the last few years, losing any real feeling that it was a genuine New South Wales Blues State of Origin trial, moves to bring top-level footy back to the bush will be welcome by many.

Do you think the NRL is doing the right thing in taking more games to rural and regional centres? Let us know in the comments and poll below.

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Daniel Lang

Rugby League & Cricket editor at RealSport.

Daniel is a passionate advocate for the game of rugby league and the development of the sport across the world and, as such, writes with a zeal and determination to spread the gospel of the game.

A huge fan of cricket, football, NFL, Tennis and Supercar racing in Australia, Daniel can quickly find himself a casual fan of just about any sport after putting his mind to watching it.

Daniel is also one-half of the hugely successful podcast 'Panthers Weekly with Strawbs & Teach' where he talks all things Panthers Weekly while he also hosts the current affairs show 'the Strawbs Show' and the 'Summer of Cricket with Strawbs & Shnuu' as well as appearing on the Sydney FC covering 'Nothing But Blue Skies' podcast occasionally.

NRL: Footy goes bush

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