Bush footy's on death's door.
It's up the stairs, shoes are off and it's there knocking away louder than ever in 2019.
Or so we're told.
The only way we're going to save the game in regional NSW? Bring more NRL to the bush; Dubbo, Bathurst, Mudgee, Menindee ... wherever they kick a ball, let's take a game there. That'll solve the problems.
Or so we're told.
The narrative around Country Rugby League, especially pedaled by those in the city, has been the same for a decade, perhaps longer: rugby league is dying in the bush.
Numbers are down, crowds are down, interest dwindling, prepare the tombstone. Bush footy's not just knocking on death's door, it's kicking it in.
Or so we're told.
Rugby league in the bush isn't the same as it once was, no one is debating that.
But rugby league in the big smoke isn't the same as it once was either. Remember when Tina Turner was belting out Simply The Best and the Balmain Tigers existed ... and were decent. Yep, still hurts to punch that out.
But things change.
And certainly bush footy has evolved a lot since I had a Gameboy and Thomas Keneally was urging the men out in the middle to 'blow that whistle ref'.
Rugby league in the country isn't dying, it's changing. For the better.
Women's participation rates have exploded.
Long the backbone of any club, women now have an abundance of choice on the playing field as well with league tag, women's tackle and nines competitions run across the region.
Just last week the Western Women's Rugby League announced its next competition will kick-off in October.
While a lot of clubs in the bush will credit their league tag ladies with reinvigorating the game in their towns. Not a bad change, that one.
It's the major reason this year Country Rugby League recorded increased participation for the second successive year.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS— Nick McGrath (@nickmcgrath4) June 9, 2019
'It's always bloody good to get one over Forbes', Parkes skipper Chad Porter couldn't put it any other way after Sunday's memorable 14-point win over the defending champions.#Group11#bushfooty#parkes#forbes@westernramshttps://t.co/a1RnZE1Ros
Registrations for the 2019 junior league season have reached 60,092, surpassing last year's total of 59,405.
But the most remarkable change the CRL was quick to spruik surprised even them.
"The most pleasing part about it is the increase in the 13-18 year-old male age bracket, because an increase there hasn't happened for quite some time," CRL operations manager Bert Lowrie said.
Certainly the challenge there remains keeping those players beyond the age of 18 - any club would know that battle well.
But the positive thing is there's players on the production line.
The most pleasing part about it is the increase in the 13-18 year-old male age bracket.CRL operations manager Bert Lowrie.
A production line that's producing plenty of quality - Western's run in the Johns and Daley Cup competitions is evidence of that.
But so too is the quality of footy we're seeing in grade at the moment.
Both Group 10 and Group 11 competitions are the closest they've been in a long time, as long as I can remember in the 15 years I've been involved in the Western region.
We saw the competitive nature of both premierships on Sunday.
Forbes had every right to feel supremely confident of travelling over to Parkes and doing a number of a Spacemen side down arguably its best player in Sam Dwyer.
But the 2019 race is just too close to call.
And while the swoopers were brilliant in patches the Spacemen proved irrepressible in a 14-point win in front of a record regular season crowd for Group 11 - $11,180 was taken at the gate.
That June long weekend Group 11 derby is just about a bucket list item - the two clubs turn it on, every year.
Records smashed, competitive footy on offer, women's games in the mix; are we sure bush footy isn't just playing knock and run on death's door?
Because over at Wade Park, Hawks and CYMS went toe-to-toe in five senior grades, with the long-running women's league tag joined by an under 18s premiership now as well.
I don't think there's been five senior games on a derby card in Orange for, well, a seriously long time.
A healthy crowd on hand there as well, part of which was there to celebrate the 1999 title winning two blues side, arguably the best in the competition's rich history.
Ah, nostalgia and rugby league, name me a more iconic duo ...
Hang on ... Molong and Manildra, anyone?
The two fought out a belter of a derby in the Woodbridge Cup just prior to the long weekend, the first time the two have faced off in a decade, and the Cabonne faithful flocked to Molong to witness it.
A 12-10 result in favour of Simon Osborne's Rhinos ensuring the bumper crowd got their grandstand finish, too.
"Local derbies are great and it shows by the crowd," Osborne said before adding in the kicker. "Footy is well and truly alive in these parts."
Alive, changing and, in some cases, thriving. Almost anything but dying.
Sure, NRL games in the bush would be a wonderful benefit for any region lucky enough to land one - just ask Bathurst, or Mudgee - and any injection of cash a governing body wants to distributed would be met with open arms from club land, that's for certain.
But next time you hear someone mention 'bush footy' and 'dying', you better get down to a game. Because there's a band of club officials, league tag ladies and grade players all working tirelessly, on and off the field, to ensure the exact opposite.
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