Junior Focus: St Christopher's Panania JRLFC

Part one of a brand new series about Junior Rugby League Clubs in New South Wales - go behind the scenes of the grassroots passion.


In part one, Paul tells the story of St Christopher's Panania Junior Rugby League Football Club:



Plumbers, Builders, office workers and Mums; The dedicated administrators running the show at St Christopher’s in Sydney’s south west are not Rugby League Administrators by trade, but you’d argue that after spending some time with them, they have a truckload more passion for the game than any we’ve seen.

John Grealy is the President of this proud Canterbury-Bankstown junior club and has been since 2004. Before I even started talking about John’s ‘to do’ list for a footy season, club Secretary Trevor Warner emerges from the pile of trophies and jackets that he’s preparing for upcoming presentation night to tell me that John spends at least 30 hours a week in the winter, outside of his real job, working for ‘Chrissies’.

Their typical calendar of events backs that up. Player registration in January has the club’s administrators flat out, already. The NRL official player rego database has to be populated with up-to-date data (St Christopher’s had 23 teams in 2013) and when dealing with kids, this process brings its own problems, “one player came back in the new season, with a new name” John laughs, “another was using his brothers’ ID because he didn’t have one, and he looked nothing like him so we sent him packing!”.

January also sees the beginning of advertising for the club (school drops etc.) and promotions to get players involved... This process runs into February and also runs the club into another issue. Smaller kids leaving the club to play in the Sutherland Shire, where the juniors are generally, more their size. Anyone connected to junior rugby league in Sydney knows of the debate regarding weight and age comparison and the difficulty facing ‘normal’ size players against kids twice their size, of the same age. In the unlimited interchange era – it’s still a problem.

John knows every single player that has worn the Maroon and Gold colours this year and can still see the amusing side of this problem, “The kid who wears the biggest size shorts in the club is 10 years old”!. In an amusingly related way, this problem also affected their game-day logistics a few years ago, when the under 15s team were charged with responsibility of the sausage sizzle … “we apparently sold 100 steak sandwiches that day, but the cash register only showed 30!!”. Hungry kids are hungry kids and players are now banned from working the BBQ.

Jokes aside, March is when John’s season kicks into a higher gear, if it wasn’t busy enough already. Pre-season. Matches are scheduled against clubs of other districts. Trying out, as well as fitting out, every player becomes almost a full time job for the President and his other 6 hard working committee members.

Now, with the season in full swing and Bill Delauney Reserve to host game day every Saturday and some Sundays, John’s wife Jane volunteers to look after the canteen for 8 hours of her Saturday, as well as a host of other jobs. Jane is buying the bread rolls (after triple checking for the best price) and is usually seen setting up from about 7am on game day.

Let’s just pause for a second. We’ve all been to watch a game of park footy. You park your car., get a great feed and watch the local kids run around whilst in the back ground – all of this is going on. Then when you go home - the volunteer administrators at every club are still working overtime …

- Monday nights – The President and secretary attend the junior league meeting
- Tuesday nights – Club meeting with team managers or committee meeting.
- Wednesday night – judiciary (sometimes)
- Thursday onwards – preparing for upcoming Saturday. (Shopping for food etc.)

All the while, committee members are visiting Revesby Pub, Panania Diggers and anywhere else they have made arrangements to help raise money for the club. Mid-season (April through July) sees them organising the annual Dinner Dance, Golf Day and Disco. As you can imagine, it gets harder and harder to inspire today’s teenagers to attend things like this. St Chrissie’s is still trying to adapt to their target market – with no profit in mind.

All the fundraising is done to pay for Presentation Night and keep the club going so local kids have somewhere to play footy. The Under 6s play for free, age 7-16 pay $85 registration and from 16 and up, kids play for $130. In return?
- Shorts, socks and Shirts
- Free NRL game passes for all juniors (an NRL institution)
- Players’ NRL rego fee and insurance,
- Players’ end of year presentation and kit.
- 10 year players get a plaque

This year? A St Christopher’s jacket given to every player from 9 to A grade; a Saints snap back hat and ball for the 6s to 8s. John and Trevor point out that they prefer bags for all the players. “One size fits all” – but they did bags last year. They want the kids of Sydney’s George’s River area to remember they played footy, remember they were part of the club. You also get a team photo, a year book and a carnival style presentation day. 332 players were registered in 2013, along with 86 officials – they all get a pack.

In 2005, this annual cycle of events included St Christopher’s 40 year anniversary. More ‘40th anniversary’ yearbooks, more presentations and more time spent honouring the tradition and history of a club, like every junior club in New South Wales, that relies on volunteers alone.

The clubhouse at Bill Delauney Reserve looked like a bomb had gone off. But it was all under control.

Speaking of the clubhouse – a reminder of the history of St Christopher’s and how many kids they’ve looked after. Next to the bar is Mark “Piggy” Riddell’s city origin jersey: across the room is a Bulldogs jersey signed by Glen, Stephen and Corey Hughes. All amongst the table full of gifts for senior presentation night – which happens to be taking place tonight, after John and Trevor have spent 2 hours letting me ask them questions and poke around the clubhouse.

This busy day adds to their busy month and when I ask about a possible reprieve and relief at the end of this month – John tells me they have their AGM in early December, where Chrissie’s “run the numbers, and we’ve never lost a cent”. Ken Slattery, the club’s treasurer for the past 10 years, has plenty to do with this, according to John. “Slatts still has the first penny he ever earnt”. Following the AGM, the committee starts confirming coaching positions for the following year. It simply does not end.

If you are still wondering why they do what they do…if you still wonder why it takes an army of volunteers to keep the greatest game of all chugging along?

“We do it because we like it”. Tell me why, lads? What are your greatest memories of all the time you’ve put in? John doesn’t answer specifically; he just begins reeling off some of the St Christopher’s juniors he seems most proud of. “Jarrod Hickey, the Hughes boys, Cameron Phelps, Shifty, Piggy”…
Apparently, Hickey would still pop down to training and help out the older guys with techniques in defense, “the kids would mob him”. Cameron Phelps “was a trainer for our U8s when he was still playing 1st grade”. Mark Riddell often “comes down to help”. I’m also told that Piggy might be reluctant to show his face at times, after all the ribbing he’s copped over the years. Both his brothers appear on the ’10 year player’ board but Pig is stuck on nine and doesn’t get a start. But according to John, “he says he might play one more year”.

It gets harder and harder for clubs like St Christopher’s Panania to keep kids interested in Rugby League and the biggest thing the NRL can do, according to John, is to address the problem they face with dwindling numbers in the older age groups. “For 15s to A grade the Canterbury juniors have had to combine with St George, Balmain, Souths, Easts and sometimes Wests to run decent size competitions. Many players feel if they don’t make it to the national U20s comp, there’s no use in playing. The current set up stops kids from playing rugby league”. No other code would stop talented young men at age 19 from being able to play the game they love.

If the NRL need to see why they have the best product in the land – and why they need to find a way to part with the millions of dollars they’ve received from broadcast rights, then grass roots clubs like St Christophers should be where they look first.

I thank John and Trevor for their time, their honesty and their hospitality as they remind me on the way out, “come down to the carnival we’re putting on next week for the juniors”.


Next  - Asquith Rugby League Football Club