BY CURTIS WOODWARD
You could not imagine a bigger underdog than the 1994 South Sydney Rabbitohs as they ran out for the Tooheys Challenge Cup Final in Albury. Rugby league’s minnows, the battlers from Redfern up against the back-to-back reigning and defending premiers.
This was no ordinary Brisbane Broncos team. They boasted superstars as far as the eye could see. Guns like Allan Langer, Glenn Lazarus, Steve Renouf, Kevin Walters, Willie Carne, Michael Hancock. The list went on and on.
The Rabbitohs had done amazingly well just to reach the pre-season decider.
Beating the Broncos? Yeah right.
But this isn’t a story about how the Rabbitohs shocked the world with an incredible 27-26 victory.
Beyond the players, all around them, 14,884 fans packed into Aubury’s Lavington Sports Ground to watch a glorified trial.
That’s right, clubs actually gave a crap back in the day. Rugby league once used trial matches to promote the game in the bush.
That same year, Brisbane also played pre-season games against Illawarra in Alice Springs and against North Sydney in Parkes. In a matter of weeks the Broncos notched up over 5,700 kilometres of travel. And it wasn’t even for premiership points!
Imagine the outcry if a club was asked to do something similar in 2018.
Back then, it was part and parcel of the game. You had a duty. Pre-season in the bush was an annual event. All teams did it.
Now it seems clubs are happy to get away with the bare minimum. Tick a box and move on.
There’s some great little rugby league towns between Canberra and Sydney. Places like Goulburn, Moss Vale and Mittagong. If you wanted to head east, there’s also a region called the Illawarra. Yet none of these are good enough to host a trial on the 15th of February between the Raiders and Parramatta. That honour goes to St Marys Leagues Stadium in Sydney. Yes, the Raiders and the Eels are going to play a game in Penrith heartland!
Incredibly, the Panthers won’t play one but two trials at their home ground – they’re not even leaving Penrith.
Have a guess where Canterbury and Wests Tigers are trialing.
Cowra? Young? Camden? Nope. Try Belmore Sports Ground.
What about Manly versus Cronulla.
Forster? Old Bar? Gosford? The correct answer is Brookvale Oval!
And it’s not just the people in country New South Wales getting short-sheeted.
Local rivals, Brisbane will travel all the way to the Gold Coast to play the Titans at CBus Super Stadium.
It comes on the back of the 2019 NRL draw announcement where it was revealed Toowoomba, Gladstone and Carins had all lost fixtures they had hosted in 2018.
The Rabbitohs will be taking a premiership game to the Sunshine Coast for the first time.
.@BenBarba03’s first match with the @nthqldcowboys could be on March 2 next year in Mackay. The Cowboys announced today that they’ll go head-to-head with the @storm in a pre-season trial match at BB Print Stadium. #NRL #7News pic.twitter.com/ZDul0h9aVc— 7 News Mackay (@7NewsMackay) November 7, 2018
“Regional towns and cities in New South Wales and Queensland provide the NRL competition, and the Rabbitohs, with huge support and a constant supply of talented players,” Souths CEO Blake Solly said recently.
“It is essential for NRL clubs to support these regions and continue to grow rugby league by taking matches to cities and towns who are passionate about the NRL.”
But only when it suits.
Clubs will argue it’s simply a cost-cutting measure and spew a few stats about engagement and what they do for local communities.
The fact is, sometimes, investment in the future is more important than saving a few bucks.
In recent years, clubs have actually gone a step further and put their hand out expecting local tourism boards to cough up what little money they have in their budgets.
We should be knocking down their doors – not bleeding them dry.
Some clubs still get it. There will be games in Mackay, Maitland and Gosford. The Storm are even taking a match to Geelong.
Rugby league people in the bush need all the help they can get.
So why aren’t we doing more?