Less than one week after participating in the launch of a slick, new 30,000-seat stadium in the geographic centre of Sydney, the Wests Tigers hosted the Gold Coast Titans at Scully Park, Tamworth, in front of 9800 appreciative fans.
Tamworth has always been a rugby league heartland. As a child growing up in the country music capital, I donned the blue and gold jersey in the local junior league for East Tamworth. It seemed like it was the only game in town. Almost every boy at school participated.
Rural and regional areas have been ripe pickings for recruiters. John Quayle, Jim Leis, David Brooks and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs are just some of the many personalities that played junior footy in the Tamworth area known as Group 4.
When my family moved to Sydney when I was ten, I became obsessed with going to those mystical rugby league grounds that were home to Balmain, North Sydney, Manly, Parramatta and Penrith. They were faraway places I had read about in Rugby League Week and dreamed about prior to shifting to the big smoke.
In the lead-up to the fixture, which was financially supported by the (Tamworth) Wests Entertainment Group and the Tamworth Regional Council, the Tigers participated in a number of activities starting from the middle of the week. They included a junior clinic, fan meet and greet, a Varying Abilities program, an Anzac Day ceremony and a Voice against Violence program.
Agricultural consultants Simon and Kate Fritsch, who attended the match, described it as a welcome distraction and financial boost for the region suffering the toll of a long-standing drought.
“The atmosphere was great,” the local business owners said.
“We parked three blocks away from the ground and could hear the noise as we walked towards the field. The ground was chockers.
“It was a good move to choose a team like the Titans (as opposed to Newcastle last year, the closest club to the region) as it gave the town a better opportunity to get behind the hosting team. It was exciting.”
The council estimated that the event last year saw an additional $2.1 million in economic benefit to the region. With a similar crowd figure and equivalent interest in the game this year, it is likely the outcome will be just as positive.
‘Rugby league is dying in the bush’ has been the catch cry for many years. Country clubs and competitions have folded due to lack of player interest and finances. The City vs Country fixture, once a mainstay of the representative season, has been reduced to memories.
At the end of last year, the NRL announced 5.4 per cent participation growth on the previous year in country rugby league regions. These figures need to be considered keeping in mind that women’s rugby league is expanding rapidly at a national level with 2018 figures up 29 per cent on 2017.
AFL North West, the local Aussie rules championship for the region, has seven clubs competing in their senior competition. The Group 4 rugby league first-grade competition, due to start in the first week of May, has the same number of clubs. The once powerful West Tamworth club has not entered a team for the past few years.
To be fair, the NRL has upped their commitment to regional and rural communities in recent years working with state and local governments to host games as well as the annual ‘Road to Regions’ tour where male and female rugby league players visit more than 60 regional towns across Queensland and New South Wales.
This season, the Panthers again hosted a competition game in Bathurst as part of their long-standing deal, South Sydney played the Storm on the Sunshine Coast, Canberra will host the Panthers in Wagga next round, and the Dragons will be in Mudgee against the Knights in Round 10.
It is a no brainer for every big-city NRL club to host a game in a regional centre.
Former international greats and products of regional centres, Peter Sterling, Billy Slater and Steve Roach have recently called on the NRL to play more competition matches in rural areas in the media.
“I’d much rather have 10,000 look like that (at a packed Scully Park) than have 6000 in an 80,000-seat stadium,” Sterling said on The Footy Show.
Billy Slater talked about connecting back to the grassroots community with the games in country centres.
“You can get lost in week-to-week rugby league and lose track of how important it is to the people,” Slater said.
Roach penned an article in the local Tamworth press in the lead up supporting more NRL games in regional areas.
The rural regions are not lost to rugby league but more can be done to attract and retain followers of the game.
They produce stars of the future, merchandise customers, television audiences and loyal club fans.
Holding NRL games that are accessible and affordable for country residents including families is a smart investment in sustaining interest in the competition and increasing participation in the sport.
The administration and clubs have a duty to the sport to ensure that the events in Tamworth, Mudgee, Bathurst and Wagga are replicated in other centres and games are held in what, historically, have been rugby league dominated areas on a more frequent basis.