Penrith football boss, Phil Gould, has thrown his full support behind the upcoming NRL game in Wagga between his club and the Canberra Raiders, and called on more clubs to follow suit.
In four months time, Equex Centre will host a battle for NRL premiership points in the heart of the Riverina.
Gould said they’re more than happy to play their part in the Raiders’ push into the region, with Penrith the away team for the Saturday afternoon game on May 4.
“Absolutely. Personally I’ve been to Wagga a few times in my football career as a player and a coach and it’s always great to get out to country areas, see the support for the game, and to pay back to the country which has contributed greatly to the elite part of the game here in Sydney for many, many decades,” Gould said.
“It’s great to put into these areas and I think the Raiders should be applauded for doing what they’re doing.
“It’s a logical move for them and something that, whilst there probably hasn’t been enough done in the past, hopefully it continues for the future.”
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The Raiders have entered into partnership with Wagga Council to host a game in 2019 and 2020. Separately, the NRL club is providing coaching support to junior representative programs in the region in return for access to promising juniors.
It’s similar to Penrith’s arrangement with NSW and the central west. The Panthers have been taking a game to Bathurst for five years and their long-term deal will continue until at least 2028.
“We’re not the first ones to take football to country areas but we’ve made a very heavy investment in the Bathurst region and beyond,” Gould said, pointing out their involvement in setting up junior academies.
“Our staff do a lot of development work out there with coaches and players so we’ve not only taken games out there but we’ve invested a lot of time and money in the development of rugby league in the region.”
Penrith’s executive general manager, Gould declared their own experience in country NSW a success for his club as well as the game at a grassroots level. So much so, he expects they’ll continue to play in Bathurst long beyond the life of the current 10-year deal.
The former premiership and State of Origin-winning coach firmly believes the top tier has an obligation to support rugby league in regional areas.
“I’ve always believed so. At Penrith, we’ve done what we can. We can’t do the lot ourselves, and nor should we be expected to. So other clubs have got to do it,” Gould said.
“I know how hard it is for NRL clubs just to look after themselves let alone to nurture other areas. But there’s great benefit in it. There’s great satisfaction in it. And we’ve got tremendous results in running the program that we’ve done.
“I’d like to see other NRL clubs going down the same path.”
Gould said there’ll be no reluctance at the Panthers about travelling to Wagga for their second regional game of the season, believing his squad gets a kick out of the country atmosphere.
“Oh absolutely,” Gould said.
“Particularly the boys that come from out those areas too. They love to give back, play in front of family and friends. I think they all appreciate where they come from and that’s something we try to instil in our players – that you never forget where you came from.
“Getting out to these country areas certainly helps that. I know they love it.
“Our boys love to travel. So we’ll play anyone, anywhere, any time really. It’s just how we’re wired.”
As the away team, Penrith will take a low profile ahead of the game but the Raiders are expected to have a heavy presence in Wagga in the lead-up to the match.
While Canberra clearly intends to stake a claim on the Riverina, Penrith also has a connection to the area.
It goes back to the playing days of Chris Mortimer in the Panthers’ heady days of the late 1980s, to former Wagga Kangaroos juniors Nigel Plum and Jamie Soward earlier this century, and the re-signng of exciting Temora prospect Liam Martin just late last year.
“I think Penrith’s got tentacles in a lot of areas,” Gould said.
“Penrith is actually great for kids to come to. It’s not the city. We’re pretty much a country town ourselves on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.
“We’ve always had success with country kids coming down. They feel comfortable living in Penrith and it’s no surprise that we’ve had an association with the Wagga area and areas around the state.”
The round eight game between Canberra and Penrith is a Saturday afternoon kick-off at Equex on May 4.
The decision cost the Raiders $150,000 after the ACT Government decided to enforce a financial clause in the contract the club has to play every game at Canberra Stadium.