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Grassroots key to rugby league revival: Sports Minister

FEDERAL Minister for Sport Bridget McKenzie hit the North Burnett last week, outlining what communities in rural Queensland must do to resurrect rugby league.

The Victorian Senator said the game needs to be rebuilt from the ground up and warned struggling clubs to ignore junior development at their own peril.

Ms McKenzie understands sport is the lifeblood of country towns and believes rugby league should do more to capture the hearts and minds of its youngest participants.

The former PE teacher was raised in the small town of Bellana in outback Victoria, where Aussie Rules football was – and still is – a religion.

She said when bush football clubs are threatened, you know the community has a major problem.

“Sport was always front and centre of my family’s life and our community’s life – it was how we all connected,” Ms McKenzie said.

“I understand the power of sport at the local level. It brings the community together like nothing else.

“When a town loses its football team, it doesn’t matter what code, it’s usually the last thing to go.

“It’s the thing everybody tries so hard to cling on to because it’s the one time of the week when everyone comes together.”

Many people the Central & North Burnett Times spoke to for this series pointed to a time when sport was at the heart of the North Burnett way of life.

Sadly, this is no longer the case.

McKenzie’s endorsement of the health of AFL in outback Victoria paints a damning picture of the state of rural rugby league.

In Victorian country leagues, she said, football and netball clubs have merged.

This affiliation ensures the whole family is involved and parents don’t have to split their time between different venues.

This is just one of many innovations that explains why Aussie Rules has more than double the junior participants of rugby league.

Minister for Sport Bridget McKenzie tours the North Burnett.

Minister for Sport Bridget McKenzie tours the North Burnett.Mike Richards

The Central Burnett Rugby League is under threat on a number of fronts.

On current evidence, it would appear the North Burnett’s senior competition is in serious danger of folding next year.

According to Ms McKenzie, the lack of a local junior competition should raise a red flag.

This is the primary concern, and must be addressed.

She said the current model is unsustainable and rugby league administrators lacked foresight by not placing a greater emphasis on junior participation.

Ms McKenzie backed Mal Meninga’s suggestion that school sport should be the vehicle to rebuild rugby league.

“Sports need to capture the hearts and minds of young players at an early age,” Ms McKenzie said.

“You have to inspire the next generation to play if you’re to have any hope of fielding a senior side in 10 years time.

“For the NRL, this means they have to get into schools and they have to back their junior club development.

“Getting sport back into schools is absolutely key.

“The Queensland Regional School Sport Association need to have a football competition as part of their offering.

“It’s an excellent idea and I encourage local principals and parents to support it.

“I would encourage this not just for young men, but for young women at school who love their sport.”

The outback has earned a reputation for turning out Australian sporting icons.

Ms McKenzie fears the failure to tackle the participation slump won’t only hurt our domestic competitions but could diminish Australia’s standing on the world stage.

By denying country kids the opportunity to participate, we run the risk of losing our sporting heroes of tomorrow.

“We know that regional Australia produces great athletes. It’s something in the water or the way they’re brought up,” she said.

“It’s their resilience and it’s something you only get when you live out in a place like Gayndah or Eidsvold, or beyond.

“Strong rural sport is important for our national success and producing future champions.

“They’re not necessarily all going to come from capital cities and leafy green suburbs. They’re going to come from the tough environments we’re talking about.”

Flynn MP Ken O'Dowd and Senator Bridget McKenzie at the Biggenden Meatworks.

Flynn MP Ken O’Dowd and Senator Bridget McKenzie at the Biggenden Meatworks.Contributed

Rural economic decline and the subsequent decline of rugby league is a complex problem.

The senator wasn’t sure who or what to blame, but said people at all levels of the game had a duty to do more to help revitalise bush football.

She said those who are passionate about the game shouldn’t leave it up to chance.

“I don’t think the government can make people play footy but we can certainly make it easier to play,” Ms McKenzie said.

“At the end of the day, if you can’t field a team that’s the local community’s way of saying ‘we would rather do something else with our Saturday’.

“It is incredibly important to make sure our local leagues and their small towns and clubs are vibrant places where people want to play.

“Wealthy codes can take care of the big cities but we need to grow the game from the grassroots up and that means investing in local community clubs.”

Local clubs and competitions must get together to identify the barriers to fielding a team, and the support they require to overcome these obstacles.

For this reason, Ms McKenzie applauded the QRL for getting on the front foot by convening an Outback Forum at the Charleville RSL on November 10.

“If the QRL and NRL are serious about making sure the game is loved and adored by Queenslanders in the regions, there needs to be some structural changes around supporting those clubs,” she said.

“They need to try new things to make people more likely to want to give up their weekend.

“The important thing is that people rock up and I encourage everyone to be there (in Charleville).

“Don’t leave it up to someone else to fight to save rugby league.”

The Federal Government is offering community club grants of up to $500,000 to help build the critical infrastructure needed to sustain sport at the grassroots level. Interested clubs are can visit the website.

BE QUICK – applications for this round of funding close 5pm this Friday, September 14.

10th Sep 2018 3:36 PM | Updated: 5:06 PM

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