The Penrith Panthers are expanding their footprint further into the western corridor in what they and the Country Rugby League (CRL) believe will serve as the blueprint for saving bush football.
The Panthers, the CRL and the NSWRL have rubber-stamped a landmark initiative that will allow the club to field teams in the Southern Pool of the Country Championships in what could be the first step towards fielding a Panthers-branded Intrust Super Premiership side in the region by 2022.
The commitment builds on the work Penrith already does in the western region, which includes taking NRL games to Bathurst at least until 2028.
They will expand their reach further with the establishment of academies in Dubbo, Forbes and Bathurst to provide youngsters from all over the region, including Orange, with a genuine rugby league pathway at a time when there will be limited scope for clubs to sign or relocate players under a new contracting system that is being finalised by the NRL and the players' union.
Matt Cameron, Penrith high performance manager, made a trip to Dubbo in June and was adamant his club is doing this to help all of rugby league in regional areas, not just to find the best kids out west and cherrypick them.
"Philosophically, we've decided that if the kids can't come to us, we'll go out to where the kids are," he said.
"It's a win for us because the kids are playing a good standard of football and it's a win for the CRL because it enhances their competition.
"We feel we've put together a blueprint that the CRL could potentially take to other NRL clubs. If they have the resources to do it, they could partner with one of the existing zones in the country to enhance their development."
Penrith are already making a difference in the greater west. The Western Rams, when training, are often more than 400 kilometres away from Sydney, but their academy gives them access to facilities and coaching that is on par with what the best young juniors receive in the city.
When Panthers CEO Bryan Fletcher, a Coonamble product, recently addressed the region's players, his message was clear – "we don't see you as a cost, we see you as an investment."
The Dubbo base of the Panthers’ academy will be St John’s College, and the school’s rugby league coordinator Andy Haycock gave it a massive tick of approval.
"I've had dealings with other clubs and they are all very good, but these guys have taken it to another level in their plan for the future," Haycock said.
"Grassroots footy, especially out in this part, is crying out for help. For them to come on board gives us a feeling that we're not at the end of the world with it, that there are people who care for us in that multimillion-dollar business."
Panthers back rower Isaah Yeo, a Dubbo product, wishes the academy system was available when he was young.
"Having grown up in Dubbo, I know the rugby league community out there will embrace everything Panthers is doing,” he said.
"To get access to elite-level coaching at an early age will benefit not just the players, but the game as a whole. There is so much young talent in country rugby league and what Panthers is doing will help take it to another level."