Hope in Western Sydney despite record flogging
Sam Bruce
July 10, 2015
Penrith Emus are determined to keep rugby relevant in Western Sydney © Penrith Rugby Union

It was the aggregate score-line that made headlines throughout the rugby world but Eastwood's 454-0, four-grade, thumping of Sydney Shute Shield strugglers Penrith may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for rugby in Western Sydney.

What hasn't been widely reported is the fact the Penrith's two colts sides recorded victories over Eastwood while, just a few weeks earlier, the Emus' under-17 side were crowned New South Wales State champions. There was just a little more to those grade results, too.

"The realities were that we were a little under-strength on the day, so our numbers were down a bit," Penrith president Jim Hook told ESPN. "And of course we were playing one of the best rugby club organisations [Eastwood] I've seen in my time in rugby, and they were very strong; and we weren't very strong at the start of the day. And we had cause for concern in regard to injuries: in our first-grade game, we had four serious injuries in the first 15 minutes; broken arms, broken legs. So it just then was a matter of trying to survive until the end of the game, and you're playing teams with quality players, quality people, quality organisation; and obviously it was just a dreadful day."

Israel Folau commits to Waratahs and Wallabies

Penrith may be having one of their worst seasons on record - unfortunate as it is the club's 50-year anniversary - but they remain defiant in their push to keep rugby relevant in Sydney's west. The Penrith Panthers NRL club, led by one rugby league's most recognisable figures in Phil Gould, the AFL's Greater Western Sydney Giants and soccer's Western Sydney Wanderers all have designs on the area at the foot of the Blue Mountains; and they are all far more well-resourced than the struggling Emus. But the region has always produced fine rugby players.

"What people don't realise, I think, is that 60% of the Waratahs come from western Sydney; 60% of the Australian Schoolboys come from western Sydney," Hook said. "We have a large Polynesian population in this area and they're ready-made footballers, but, as you say, the other codes have seen the growth in western Sydney - which is about two million people at the moment - and they have put significant funding into the development of their codes, particularly the AFL who I think have got something like 50 development officers in greater western Sydney. And we've got one part-time bloke. That then is a fair indication of where we're at in the scheme of things."

The other problem for Penrith comes with player retention; the other Shute Shield clubs are quick to pounce on the club's rising talent, offering financial incentives the Emus are unable to match. It's a situation that's likely to occur with the obvious talent in their under-17 ranks, and it's an issue that needs to be addressed if rugby is serious about Australia's fastest-growing region.

"We always knew that it was going to be a tough assignment when you don't then have the money to go out and replace those people," Hook said. "But we made a conscious decision some years ago to work from the bottom up, and that is working. The only problem that that creates is that when you don't have enough money to support your senior club operation, then it's a long wait for your young fellas to come through into your grade system. So it'll be another couple of years before we see the strength of our juniors and colts programs come into our senior club operation.

Penrith won the New South Wales Under-17 championship © Penrith Rugby Club

"A lot of those [under-17] kids are tied up in our colts operations as well, and they're the hope for the future; our challenge is to provide them with the environment that they see as a pathway that can take them through to the next level. That's the challenge for us, as we've got to improve our senior club operation, our football club operation, to provide an environment for these people to go through to the next level."

Funding remains a major issue for rugby clubs throughout Australia, regardless of their location. A decrease in national and state grants - to nothing at all in some corners - has further stretched the already threadbare resources at both junior and senior level; it's a by-product of the Australian Rugby Union's financial position. The national body has undertaken a series of cost-cutting measures at every level of the game over the past few years in a bid to right its bottom line, but Hook remains hopeful that may change in the future.

"I know the people in our hierarchy understand the need for the development of western Sydney but they've had their funding issues, too," he said. "Four years ago for example, clubs like ours, it was the same with every other [Shute Shield] club in Sydney, we were receiving grant money of about $Aus100,000 and now we're getting none. And that's because of the financial situation of our parent body. So, hopefully, that might change in the future. But we've always had contingency plans in place and we've always been out there working hard in the local community, trying to develop players to play at this level. I think what people don't understand is that the standard of football played in Premier Rugby is very high indeed. I mean in any given week you can play a club with eight to 10 Super Rugby players in there; and we're the amateurs playing the professionals to be honest with you."

ESPN understands the ARU and the New South Wales Rugby Union is conducting a review of all levels of rugby in Western Sydney in order to produce a specific strategy for the region for the future. The review is part of a "whole of game" strategic process likely to be unveiled in the coming months. NSW Rugby senior development manager Michael Doyle has been charged with tabling a submission for the ARU, an undertaking he commenced in February of this year.

There's goals still to be kicked by the Emus © Getty Images

The Emus wanted very much to sign Israel Folau for marketing purposes © Getty Images
Israel Folau signs autographs for students at Fairfield High School, Fairfield, Sydney, August 29, 2013
Israel Folau was a big hit when he signed autographs for students at Fairfield High School © Fairfield High School

The ARU has one ace up its sleeve for western Sydney in Wallabies full-back Israel Folau. The cross-code superstar who hails from Minto in Sydney's west on Wednesday committed his future to the 15-man game, signing a three-year flexible deal that will see him spend a couple of seasons with NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japanese rugby.

Folau is one of Australian sport's most recognisable faces and also recently released a series of children's books; but when he first made the move to the Waratahs at the end of 2012, he was snapped up by Sydney University. With Folau highly unlikely ever to feature in the Shute Shield, his image could be far better used out west.

"Well I fought very hard to have him aligned with us," Hook said of Folau. "I don't know why the decision was made for him to go to Uni but I guess that's his choice. But, yes, someone like that [is] a figurehead [who] we could market, support; but it certainly would help us in terms of what we're trying to do to develop the game in western Sydney, which is what we're trying to do.

"This is where the population is. We're the sleeping giant of Sydney rugby. If we could get some resource support and some other support, in five to 10 years this will be where the strength of rugby is."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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