A cross-border partnership is building, geared towards better opportunities for young rugby league players and fans in South East New South Wales and the ACT.
Members of the Canberra Raiders board of directors have spent two days in the Bega Valley touring sporting facilities with local Mayor, Kristy McBain.
Both the “Green Machine” and Bega Valley Shire Council are shaking the tin on separate but connected plans.
For the Raiders, a long talked about Canberra Region Centre of Excellence is the vision, while Council has its eye on $12 million worth of improvements to sporting facilities at Pambula and Bega.
“We would like to support Council’s funding application by committing to play a trial game in Bega in 2019 – 2020 if their upgrades go ahead,” Raiders CEO Don Furner says.
While the surface of the Bega Recreation Ground looks to be in good condition, Mr Furner points to the need for better lighting, broadcast facilities, and improved change rooms before any trial match could be considered.
“And it’s not just us. If we had a trial game here, the Brumbies might come, or a national soccer team,” Mr Furner says.
“It is about better facilities for the players, officials, and fans – build it and they will come.”
Mayor McBain says, “Council is just about to send off our application to the NSW Government, so it’s great to have the Raiders here and providing a letter of support, this adds weight to our application.”
In return for backing from the Raiders, Council will support the clubs funding application to the NSW and ACT Governments to establish a $19 million Centre of Excellence that fosters current and future talent in the game.
“This [Bega Valley] is possibly an area that we have neglected a little bit,” Mr Furner says.
“We’d like to change that and see players from this region flow through to us.”
The experience of women’s Rugby League star Kezie Apps is a great example.
Bega born Kezie was the 2016 female Daly M medal winner and has just helped steer the Jillaroos to a Women’s World Cup win over New Zealand.
“Kezie approached our club two years ago when the women’s comp was starting and said – ‘I want to play in a Canberra club,'” Mr Furner says.
“We didn’t have a women’s competition so she went up north. We’d love to have a women’s team in the national competition, but we need the facilities, which is part of our push for a Centre of Excellence.”
The Raiders have been pulling regional communities from across southern NSW behind their plan, with club officials spending time with Hilltops and Queanbeyan-Palerang Councils in recent weeks.
“We are the only country inland team in the NRL,” Mr Furner says.
“Canberra is a city of roughly 360,000 but the region holds roughly 600,000 to 700,000 people.
“Geographically it’s a massive area but we like to consider ourselves as the club for that area,” he says.
With the New South Wales Government funding Centres of Excellence for Sydney based NRL clubs, that connection to country NSW is a key chip on the table as the Raiders seek funding from the Berejiklian government.
“There is this funny line around Canberra, but the reality is there is no border,” Mr Furner says.
“This is a great example of cross-border collaboration – it’s win-win.”
Rugby League die-hards on the sideline of the Raiders Bega and Pambula visit this week suggested the NSW Premier should be investing in country sporting stadiums rather than spending $2 billion on the Olympic Stadium and others in Sydney.
“If we were to set up a Centre of Excellence we would get more resources to service regional areas, and Bega is one of those areas,” Mr Furner says.
“It would mean we could employ more development officers, we can get out to the regions better and can run a lot more clinics and camps, and give country kids a chance to come and use high-class facilities.”
Alan Wilton, Chair of Group 16 Rugby League remembers when the Raiders last played a trial game in Bega.
Six thousand people packed into the Bega Rec Ground in February 2011 to witness the Melbourne Storm record a comfortable 24-4 win.
“It was a wonderful night for rugby league and this community, we’d love to see that again,” Mr Wilton says.
“It’s great to have the Raiders here to help make that happen, and showing an interest in our players.”
A connection with the Canberra rugby league community is seen as a better fit for talent from the Far South Coast, who in the past have been aligned to competitions around Wollongong and Sydney.
“Having those pathways into the Raiders presents some great opportunities for us and I’d like to think for the Raiders as well,” Mr Wilton says.
The dollars to do all this for the Canberra Raiders, Bega Valley Shire Council, and the wider region are the missing ingredients.
But the NSW Government is making the right noises. Member for Monaro, Deputy Premier, Minister for Regional NSW, and Raiders fan, John Barilaro is sounding positive.
“We know that South East NSW is part of the broader Canberra Region, and the NSW and ACT Governments must collaborate to get the best result overall,” he says.
“Through the work of the Canberra Region Joint Organisation, our Governments are working towards a seamless border and making it easier for people to access services, live, work and travel throughout the entire Canberra region.
“What is good for Canberra is good for South East NSW,” Mr Barilaro says.
It’s understood that if the proposed deal to fund the Centre of Excellence comes off it will be the first of it’s kind, with NSW investing in ACT infrastructure. Christmas is around the corner, so perhaps magic can happen.