Wayne Bennett was always going to see more of NSW after linking with the South Sydney Rabbitohs but in 2019 there will be plenty of time spent in regional areas.
Bennett made the high-profile switch to Redfern last month, bringing an end to his second spell as coach of the Brisbane Broncos.
Some of his first matches with the Rabbitohs will be in country NSW, with a trial match against Riverina to be played in Albury on February 16 while another historic Charity Shield clash with St George Illawarra will be played at Mudgee on March 2.
Both matches are expected to be played in front of bumper crowds of passionate fans who don’t get the chance to see top-flight rugby league regularly, and Bennett is adamant they’re the people who need to be cared for.
He played numerous matches in regional Queensland with the Broncos while he also saw grassroots footy firsthand when coaching at both Newcastle and St George Illawarra.
“I’m always concerned about country NSW and Queensland, that’s the backbone of the sport,” he said when the Riverina match as announced last week.
“I’ve never gone too far away from what’s important to me.
“I’ve done that with the Broncos quite a number of times, I did it at the Dragons, Newcastle.
“We’ve got to give something back.”
The match in Albury is a massive coup for bush footy as it is not only being played in a regional area, it is also being played against a side based in the country.
The decision to play the match against a country representative side was one made by Bennett, eager to take a game to the country.
Group 9’s best will take to the field in the game and while Souths’ biggest names are unlikely to feature, there will still be a number of prominent players and, of course, Bennett himself.
“There will be some good players, but we’ll build into the pre-season with the Charity Shield game,” Bennett said.
The big names are expected to be in Mudgee for the match at Glen Willow in early March, 2019 marking the second successive year the Charity Shield has been played in the western area.
The likes of Greg Inglis, Sam Burgess, and Damien Cook are all likely to play some part at Mudgee.