HOW good is this?
After six years of watching on while Mudgee, Bathurst, Dubbo and Country Rugby League centres further afield lapped up NRL in their own backyards, Saturday will finally be Orange’s turn to enjoy the spectacle when the Newcastle Knights host Canberra Raiders at Wade Park.
And what a spectacle it’s shaping up to be.
In what will be both clubs’ final pre-season outing, current Origin players Trent Hodkinson, Dane Gagai and Josh Papalii have been named to play, as have New Zealand lock Jeremy Smith and English hooker Josh Hodgson.
Then there’s Western Division products Jack Wighton and Shannon Boyd, both of whom are no stranger to footy in Orange having grown up in the colour city and Cowra respectively.
Jarrod Crocker. Aidan Sezer. Akuila Uate. Sione Mata’utia. Sia Soliola.
It’s a wealth of some of the NRL’s best and most promising young talent set to ply their trade at Wade Park.
So how lucky are we?
Saturday’s game is the only trial match in 2016 taken to Country Rugby League heartland. And I’m not talking areas like Illawarra, Newcastle, Central Coast or Canberra, areas that masquerade as bush footy centres, either.
I’m talking places like the Riverina - Wagga, Gundagai, Junee - where the punters love their league so much most if not all preach at the base of the Ray Warren statue before heading to Laurie Daley Oval every Sunday.
There’s no games there this year.
Northern NSW, places like Port Macquarie, Tamworth, Coffs Harbour, where the only thing bigger than the big banana or the big golden guitar is, of course, the big hits in bush footy.
There’s no games there either in 2016. None. Anywhere.
There is however, games on Saturday at Campbelltown, Penrith, Narrabeen and Belmore - areas that see NRL games once every two weeks from March through to September.
Come Saturday at 6.30pm, Wade Park will be a beacon of what is both so good and so, so disappointing about today’s NRL.
I’ve go no doubts the league loving faithful in Orange will pour into Wade Park on Saturday afternoon ahead of kick-off for the main game, and that’s the good part.
That’s the great part.
We love our league and having waited so long for more top flight action, bush footy will be alive and well in Orange - Newcastle should be commended for biting the bullet and doing what no other club is prepared to this weekend.
And that in itself is a problem.
The fact there’s no other groups or regions experiencing the same thing, some NRL on their own doorstep, that’s the disappointing part.
For the NRL as much as it is for the Knights and the Raiders, there’s no substitute for the exposure created by school visits, by open training sessions, by signing autographs for throngs of excited junior footy players and, simply, by holding a trial game in country areas that crave footy.
None. Make it happen more often. It’s that simple.