Penrith Panthers are excited to be a part of the Canberra Raiders’ NRL game in the Riverina next year.
The release of the NRL draw on Thursday morning saw the Panthers named as Canberra’s opponents for the round eight game a Wagga's Equex centre on Saturday, May 4.
The club has been home to a number of former Wagga footballers at different times, including Jamie Soward, Nigel Plum and Chris Mortimer.
“It was a bit of a surprise actually because we had no indication we were going there,” Penrith chief executive, Brian Fletcher, told The Daily Advertiser on Thursday.
“I’m from Coonamble so from my point of view, it’s good to take football back to the bush where rugby league is struggling in a lot of areas. If we can do something to improve it and make it better and give something back to country rugby league people, then that’s good.”
The Panthers finished fifth on a congested NRL ladder last season and Fletcher said they intend to be bringing a serious premiership contender to Wagga in just over six months.
“We’ve got a young side, they’re very talented and we only finished two points away from the minor premiers last year, with an average of six players out injured every week,” Fletcher said.
“If we can get a good start and the right team on the field then we’re hoping for a pretty good season.
“We’ve got a few stars in the team."
The Panthers have played games in Bathurst for the past four seasons and have committed to another nine years in the regional NSW town.
“The bush is pretty familiar to us. We’ve been at Bathurst for a few years now and we’ve taken our first grade side up to Port Macquarie for a week,” Fletcher said.
As the Wagga fixture will be a Raiders home game, the Panthers are likely to leave their arrival until the Friday, in time for a captain’s run training session on the eve of the match.
The Raiders will have a promotional presence throughout the week leading up to the game.
Raiders chief executive Don Furner believes the Panthers are the perfect opponent for the Canberra’s foray into the Riverina.
“We see ourselves as a country team, we’re a bit of a big country town and Penrith could claim to be similar as a regional city,” Furner said.
“They’ve had a strong association in country, and taken us to Bathurst the last couple of years… and they’re a bit like us and probably Newcastle as the clubs in NSW that have strong links to the country.”
The Raiders owe their rivals too, having suffered heart-breaking losses to Penrith in Bathurst in 2016 and 2017. They’re among a four-game losing streak to the Panthers in what’s developed as a close rivalry between the clubs.
In fact, the Raiders’ overview of next season already has the Wagga game second in their list of five key matches.
“We always do (have close games),” Furner said. “We both play entertaining footy and both throw the ball around a bit.”
The Raiders remain confident the Riverina will provide a comfortable home-ground advantage.
“I’d suggest we’d have the most amount of support out that way,” Furner said.
“It can be a really good weekend in the country for Canberra people to travel across for it.
“But it’s not that far for Penrith supporters to travel to. And in the autumn, it’s a good time to get out to the country, particularly being the Wagga Gold Cup weekend.”
The Raiders boss praised Wagga City Council’s partnership with the NRL club and in tying it in with the Wagga Gold Cup carnival.
“Wagga Council deserves credit,” he said. “They’ve underwritten the event. They’ve worked closely with us and we pushed through to the NRL the desired weekend that we wanted. And we’ve got it.”