A state government plan to have more NRL games in regional areas has got the backing of Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V'Landys.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro has offered government funding to make it easier for more regional venues to host top-flight matches while Dubbo MP Dugald Saunders has already had discussions with NRL club officials about the prospect of games at Apex Oval and other locations across the state.
The news comes as a boost to Dubbo's chance of hosting an NRL match after mayor Ben Shields recently announced he was pushing to have a game played at Apex Oval in the next three years.
Bathurst, Tamworth, and Wagga all have agreements in place with NRL clubs currently but Saunders said he could see "six to eight" games in total a season being played in the bush.
Saunders first met with V'Landys last September to discuss the idea and while COVID-19 has hampered discussion and planning, it remains a focus.
"There's a lot of opportunity for more games to come and it's about not necessarily saying to a local government area 'well you do it'," Saunders told the Daily Liberal.
"I want to see a bit of a regional approach where councils will have to contribute something but we'll be helping negotiate a bit of a system with the NRL to guarantee some bush footy to be back and a lot of people have been calling for that for some time and, to his credit, Peter V'Landys can see real credit in that."
The biggest issue in getting games to the bush has long been the cost involved.
It has been reported in the past Bathurst's 10-year deal with the Penrith Panthers to have one game a year at Carrington Park costs around $250,000 per fixture.
Saunders confirmed those figures were in the ballpark but said the state government and the NRL could work together, along with local councils, to ease the burden.
The push has gained momentum, with V'Landys putting together a task force to look into the matter while Saunders has met with NRL clubs to discuss matches in Dubbo and other regional areas.
"I spoke to Blake Solly (the CEO) from South Sydney and had a couple face-to-face meetings and phone conversations with Blake about the possibility of the Rabbits being involved and there is a cost," he said.
"There is a cost, it's over a quarter of million dollars we're talking as a starting point to actually look at having a team lose their home ground."
Shields stated last week the reason he has never pushed for a match at NRL in the past was the cost involved but with the economy needing stimulation post-COVID this is one initiative which would provide a boost.
"We are heading into such uncertain economic times over the coming years. We need to look at ways we can attract more visitors and more money into the Dubbo region," Shields said.
That economic benefit is one of the major reasons Saunders and Barilaro have been working on this plan, alongside giving back to passionate fans and regions which have created NRL stars.
I'm confident we'll have some really good news towards the end of the year.Dugald Saunders
And rather than the cost being lumped with a state member or local council, Saunders pointed to Destination NSW, COVID relief packages, and the NRL itself as other possible funding opportunities.
"I think defraying the cost that way is a really good way of doing it and it provides some security for not just one-off games here and there but a series of games that can happen year on year, which is important as well," he added.
While Dubbo has been singled out as a potential host for matches, it's not all about seeing the NRL at Apex.
Coffs Harbour is another which was named as a future venue while Saunders added he was hopeful Mudgee and the Mid-West Regional Council could strike up another deal with the St George Illawarra Dragons to have the Red V back at Glen Willow again.
"There's real opportunities," Saunders said.
"We've got to be open to other regional areas as well, this isn't just about Dubbo, which I don't say very often.
"We've got to get as much as we can for our particular region but it's also about getting footy back to the bush. We've been supporting it for years and we don't have City-Country any more so having more NRL games and not just pre-season games, proper games, is really important."
Dubbo last hosted a top-flight rugby league match in 2014 when close to 10,000 people attended a City-Country fixture.
The funds the state government could provide in the near future wouldn't just be NRL clubs either.
Upgrades to regional facilities are likely, with Apex Oval almost certain to benefit should this plan come to fruition.
"Apex Oval is a fantastic ground but for night games it does need a lighting upgrade and as part of that upgrade one of the towers would have to be moved. It's in the wrong position and we've already looked at that," Saunders revealed.
"There's other towns that would want to get involved that might need a bit of a surface or lighting upgrade."
And while there's plenty still to happen and the focus of V'Landys and many others in the game on the NRL's return and strengthening post-COVID, there's a feeling of real optimism in regards to rugby league in the bush in the near future.
"I'm confident we'll have some really good news towards the end of the year as we look at next year's season and hopefully we'll have some really significant regional rounds as part of that," Saunders said.