The NRL is fighting back in the bush with the announcement of two new junior age NSW country competitions.
The Country Rugby League (CRL) this season will introduce the under-16s Andrew Johns Cup and under-18s Laurie Daley Cup – named after two of the state’s greatest players.
Eight of the 11 teams involved have aligned with NRL clubs and it’s hoped it will produce better talent for the game’s top flight as well as keeping young players in the game longer.
“I don’t think it’s about saving rugby league; there’s great interest in rugby league all over,” Johns said.
“But it’s just that challenge of keeping young kids playing at that age of 15, 16, 17, 18 where other things become more important to them.
“We all know there can be distractions at that age but, if we can keep them playing rugby league, especially in something like this.
“If you’re representing your area, for a young kid of 16, 17, that can be a huge bonus and something to give him a lot of confidence.
“Hopefully, it keeps those kids playing.”
The competitions have been introduced by the CRL as part of the NRL’s review into its pathways.
More broadly, it’s a part of the game’s push to do more for the country.
Bush clubs and leagues have long fought against soccer and AFL incursions into rugby league’s heartland and grappled with how to hold onto players.
The CRL argues, however, that positive headway is being made and last year recorded a 3.5 per cent increase in registered players, largely on the back of a boom in female participation.
St George Illawarra, Penrith, Wests Tigers and Canberra have all entered into partnerships with teams.
Importantly, it will give NRL clubs a stake in the health of bush football with the competition, which kicks off this weekend, featuring 550 of the state’s best youngsters.
“This provides a pathway for those youngsters in the country,” Daley said.
“Knowing that they don’t have to leave home is massive.
“I know myself when I left home at 16, I was homesick for the first six to 12 months.
“At times, you wanted to throw it in. I was one of the lucky ones.
“But there are plenty of others who will.
“But if they don’t go on and be professional players, they’ve got two years of learning about themselves and learning about what it takes, learning good habits, which can only be good for them and other people in their communities.”