Penrith are exploring the possibility of expanding their footprint by fielding teams in the Western Region championships in what could be the blueprint for saving grassroots rugby league in the country.
At a time when the NRL is setting aside $100 million to stop the mass exodus of junior and bush players, the Panthers are taking matters into their own hands with a series of initiatives they believe will help revive country rugby league. Chief among their plans is fielding Panthers-branded sides in an expanded Western Region competition with a view to eventually fielding an Intrust Super Premiership side out of Bathurst. It is hoped the initiative will be rubber-stamped when it goes before the boards of the Country Rugby League, NSWRL and Panthers for approval.
Penrith recently committed to taking an NRL match to Bathurst until at least 2028 after signing a new, 10-year agreement with Bathurst Regional Council. However, the Panthers are keen to expand their reach further still with a proposal that includes the establishment of academies in Bathurst, Dubbo and Forbes to provide youngsters a genuine league pathway.
The addition of Penrith as a southern zone side into an expanded 12-team Western Region competition would be a big boost to grassroots football. The Panthers already invest heavily in the region via junior clinics and are seeking to further improve the skills of players and coaches in the area. The club already spends about $2.6 million a year on its grassroots and junior rugby league development systems in proof that NRL clubs can propagate the game in a cost-effective manner.
The Panthers have already established themselves in Bathurst, where they have a leagues club, and are seeking to expand their footprint from Group 10 across to the Group 11 and Group 14 areas, stretching out to Gilgandra and Coonamble.
"We take an area in from Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo to Mudgee and the wider west," Penrith chief executive Brian Fletcher said.
"We want to make it our grassroots area to develop and eventually bring the players through our system.
"We'd like to play a Penrith reserve grade side out of Bathurst in the NSW Cup competition long-term.
"Our idea for grassroots football is for each club to develop an area. What we started five years ago, when we were stone broke and coming last to where we are today shows you we have the pathway right."
Penrith's high-performance manager, Matt Cameron, has been largely responsible for implementing the club's regional strategies. He has seen the Panthers brand grow exponentially since being part of the club's push into the Bathurst region five years ago and believes its reach has further potential.
"We've got a serious belief that if we're not developing kids out there who will?" Cameron said.
"A lot of clubs are pulling back and expecting the game to do development. Philosophically, that doesn't sit right with us, we feel it's part of our charter. There's a strong belief that if the Panthers don't do development then who will? It makes you wonder where the game would be in 10 years' time."
"We want to make it our grassroots area to develop and eventually bring the players through our system."
As part of its pathways plans, the NRL is mindful of providing bush footballers with opportunities to progress their careers without having to relocate too early. To that end, the Panthers are setting up a model that allows the best youngsters to receive their football tuition from Bathurst, negating the displacement that comes with moving to the city at a young age.
"We're excited by it, we believe it's a blueprint for other regions in the future," said CRL official Bert Lowrie, who stressed the inclusion of the Panthers in the regional competitions was subject to his board's approval.
The success of Penrith's regional programs adds further weight to the push for NRL clubs to be assigned a grassroots country area to invest in.
"The NRL is talking about spending $100 million on grassroots," Fletcher said.
"If everyone was doing this, you'd only need to spend about $20 million and save $80 million.
"For all the money they are spending, grassroots participation is down 15 per cent. It's not down 15 per cent at Penrith."