Living out in the country, five hours from your nearest league stronghold, it?s hard for a fan to really get as involved in the greatest game as he?d like to. In fact, in the last four or five years there has been very little NRL contact with the region. Local products such as Dean Widders and Jason Ferris have done their part, and Tamworth were given a trial between Sydney and Manly in 2002- but otherwise Armidale and the New England region haven?t been given the time of day.
Take last year?s ?That?s My Town? competition run by The Footy Show. You?d be hard pressed to find a local who wasn?t a little disheartened by the fact the quality of the town?s video submission didn?t matter, because Forster-Tuncurry had beaches.
So, when I happened to hear that the Country Origin team was coming to Armidale for a few days of training- you can understand my excitement. With the exception of Parramatta?s ?Eels on Wheels? tour in 2000- I haven?t had any chances to meet the guys I tune in to watch twice a weekend. Better yet, one of my favourite Newcastle boys (Daniel Abraham) would be in the squad.
The most disappointing thing about the whole visit has been the complete lack of publicity for the event. Whilst Dean Widders and Ronald Prince?s visit later this week has been given constant radio play- I?ve heard only one mention of the team?s visit on local radio in the last few days. Despite this, the crowd that formed by 4.30?s autograph signing and meet & greet was quite respectable.
My mates and I got there an hour early to watch the training session. Having never been a live league match myself, it was a great experience to be so close to the players and Ricky Stuart as he drilled them for this weekend?s clash with City. There?s just something special about having a chat with Andrew Ryan while he marks Amos Roberts only five metres from you. It?s something that we out in the country don?t get to experience very often.
The training session complete, the fans flocked onto the University of New England?s Bellevue rugby fields to meet their idols. Close to a hundred people had turned up, and with players scattered around the field- fans had an hour to get signatures, pose for jerseys, or just have a chat with some of their favourite players. Luke Patten, Glenn Morrison, Kurt Gidley, and Andrew Ryan were all excellent ambassadors for the game. Not only were they courteous, but also more than willing to make conversation. I never thought I?d be discussing Central Coast?s re-admission push with Glenn Morrison, or asking Luke Patten to put one or two down in the Bulldogs? clash with Newcastle this weekend. The opportunity doesn?t arise very often out my way.
All in all it was a memorable experience. My jersey came back with signatures from the players, the Chief, and Ricky Stuart. I came away from the event with a lot of respect for the Bulldogs? players as well. When the controversy regarding Coffs Harbour?s allegations is so far away- you forget that the players are just normal guys with a lot of skill. Luke Patten and Andrew Ryan should be applauded for not letting it jade them against fans.
Most players were excellent though, and it did a lot for a disillusion league fan?s faith in the game to have a chance to see the players and actually talk to them. The NRL needs to remember that there is a lot more to the NRL?s fan base than just the eastern coast. The visit was a positive step, but it will be little more than a band-aid solution if the NRL doesn?t keep it up.
For now though, I?ll finish with ?Go you mighty Country boys, show City that you?ve got more pride and more passion?. In particular, good luck to the New England boys in Nathan Blacklock and Andrew Ryan, and, of course, the Knights? boys.