AT THE END OF THE DAY | Why a bush footy Autobahn is key to game's growth

PATHWAY: Forbes' Charlie Staines is the latest Western Rams product to light up the NRL, and a taskforce including Laurie Daley and Dugald Saunders is hoping to strengthen that city-country link.
PATHWAY: Forbes' Charlie Staines is the latest Western Rams product to light up the NRL, and a taskforce including Laurie Daley and Dugald Saunders is hoping to strengthen that city-country link.

Member for Dubbo Dugald Saunders, Canberra Raiders legend Laurie Daley, proud indigenous advocate Joe Williams and Bob Walsh, an old cocky from Narromine, walk into a bar and sit down at a round table.

The topic? Pathways.

Pathways to the city. Pathways to the bush.

Effectively, the foursome is hoping to develop clear enough pathways, in both directions, to shore up the future of the game across regional parts of New South Wales.

A bush footy Autobahn, if you will.

Why? Simply, because there's benefits for both.

And Daley knows this better than most having rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in rugby league.

As the NSW Blues coach for five straight series and a grand final winner in his playing days with the Green Machine in the early 1990s, the prodigiously talented five-eighth effectively lived out every young boy's dream.

A dream that started in Junee.

A proud bush footy town, the Diesels play in Group 9, south of Western Division, but the pathway to the top is the same.

Charlie Staines is embraced on Group 11 grand final day in 2018. Photo: NICK McGRATH

Charlie Staines is embraced on Group 11 grand final day in 2018. Photo: NICK McGRATH

Club, country champs, junior rep, state cup, NRL.

Of late, it's a well-worn pathway too.

Western's best are shining under the bright lights of the NRL, with Forbes fullback Charlie Staines the latest off the Rams production line to make his mark on the big stage.

His four tries on debut last week will take some topping in the years to come, but before that the likes of Matt Burton (Dubbo), Kotoni Staggs (Wellington), Josh Jackson (Gulgong), Shannon Boyd (Cowra) and Jack Wighton (Orange), to name a few, paved the way for Staines' scintillating debut.

Staines excelled because the pathway was clear.

... if I had that opportunity (to meet top flight rugby league players) it left a lasting impression.

NRL great Laurie Daley

He made his mark with Western as a junior, was signed by Penrith to play junior reps, and when that season was over instead of being left in the wilderness was able to come back home and play out the Group 11 season in Forbes.

He didn't just make up the numbers in 2018, either. He sparked the eventual premiers. Staines was headed in the right direction from the get-go.

And so Penrith's commitment to our region must be applauded.

The talent's here, and the Panthers' hierarchy acknowledged that, and now fosters it brilliantly. The payback? Well, Penrith's now sitting in second on the ladder.

But what's the good of a one-way street? So far this story only highlights the east-bound benefits.

This highway works both ways though. It must.

And opening up the west by bringing more NRL games to the country parts of NSW, particularly those battling initially what was a crippling drought and now more recently the coronavirus, is also a must.

And so we're back to the start. Where Saunders walks into the bar, sits down next to messrs Walsh, Daley and Williams and pops on a hat. Emblazoned just above the beak it says 'NRL regional task force chair'.

Saunders has been charged by the state government with bringing more top line sport to regional NSW.

His main goal is to bring NRL to bush towns - be it competitions games, pre-season fixtures, or just coaching clinics - Saunders knows what sort of an impact the exposure to top line sports people can have on regional communities.

This is an opportunity to .say we know we can do better for regional areas

Member for Dubbo Dugald Saunders

"So many fans here want to see top quality rugby league week-in, week out and while we can't get it every week we can certainly do better than we have in the past," the Member for Dubbo said in an interview on the Big Sports Breakfast on Tuesday morning.

He said ARL chairman Peter V'Landys and NSW deputy premier John Barilaro have worked tirelessly to get the game back on its feet at the elite level after the lockdown.

But now's the time to look more broadly at the positive impact the game can have, and Saunders believes the likes of Mudgee, Dubbo and southern areas of the state are primed to benefit.

"This is an opportunity to say we know we can do better for regional areas. Mudgee ... Dubbo, the surface and the quality of facility are as good as city areas," he added.

The only factor? Seemingly, travel.

Best work on that Autobahn, Duges.

Which, by the looks of things, might just get off the ground.

The best way for that to happen, Saunders says, is by working alongside NRL coaches and players to ensure the regional carrot dangling in front of them is an enticing one.

Because the flow-on effects if a club grabs that juicy carrot will be immense.

"I think it's a bit of hope," Saunders continues, looking at a potential game in bush footy heartland.

Jack Wighton in action for the Canberra Raiders. Photo: CANBERRA TIMES

Jack Wighton in action for the Canberra Raiders. Photo: CANBERRA TIMES

"And it'll offer a bit of a pathway for young people. Having coaches from past days, or former players, or current players, it adds to the ability to connect on a different level.

"It leaves a legacy and it's building the next generation of people."

Or, in political terms, it's investing in regional areas.

An investment that has brought us the likes of, more recently, Wighton, Yeo, Burton, Jackson and Staines, and before along that well-worn pathway the Mortimers, Sterling and, yep, Daley.

"As a young boy," Daley recalls.

"... if I had that opportunity (to meet top flight rugby league players) it left a lasting impression.

"I'm only too happy to help out where I can."

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This story Why a bush footy Autobahn is key to game's growth first appeared on Central Western Daily.