Penrith is expanding its footprint further into the western corridor in what the club and the Country Rugby League 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 western region by 2022.
The commitment builds on the work Penrith already does in the region, which includes taking NRL games to Bathurst at least until 2028. They will expand their reach further with the establishment of academies in Bathurst, Dubbo and Forbes to provide youngsters 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.
"Philosophically, we've decided that if the kids can't come to us, we'll go out to where the kids are," Penrith's high-performance manager Matt Cameron 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 at Dubbo, are 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."
"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," said the rugby league co-ordinator for St Johns College, Andy Haycock.
"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 forward Isaah Yeo, a Dubbo product, wishes the academy system was available when he was coming through the ranks.
"I think it's great Panthers is getting on the front foot with building development pathways for country kids to make it to the NRL," Yeo said. "Having grown up in Dubbo, I know the rugby league community out there will embrace everything Panthers is doing.
"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."
The Panthers will continue to field under-16s and under-18s teams in Sydney's Harold Matthews and SG Ball competitions, but will now also field "Penrith Panthers"-branded teams in those age groups in the Country Championships. At a time when the NRL has set aside $100 million to invest in grassroots rugby league, the Panthers have proven you don't need to spend big to get results in the bush. Penrith spend just under $2.5 million to run all of their junior programs, an investment that begins with its under-20s side and covers every tier down to the youngest registered player. The total cost of running programs at the three academies – St Johns College in Dubbo, Red Bend Catholic College in Forbes and Charles Sturt University in Bathurst – is just $20,000. The club recently ran an under-15s camp for just $7500.
The CRL has no doubt that if the NRL wants bang for its buck, it could do worse than fund clubs that are willing to partner with regional zones.
"The model they've got will be the blueprint for all regions," CRL official Bert Lowrie said of Penrith's initiative. "They're setting up academies, but not in the bricks-and-mortar sense. They will put their expertise into those academies but what they won't be doing – and they have made this very clear – is coming out to take over.
"In the Penrith model, they're coaching our coaches, they're working with our sports trainers, they're helping prepare our 16s and 18s for our championships and, underneath that, they work with our 14s and 15s as well. It all just flows.
"They will put a Penrith development team wearing the Penrith colours into the Southern region championships, which is huge, a massive step. We don't want clubs to be given an area and then just come in and cherry-pick the best kids. We want clubs to come in and do what Penrith is doing, to come in and actually invest in the region."
Some NRL clubs are already making significant investments in regional areas. The Roosters are developing talent on the Central Coast, while Newcastle and Canberra provide appropriate resources for their surrounding areas. However, the CRL believes every NRL franchise should be responsible for developing a region.