Panthers’ involvement heralds long-term benefits for code in Canterbury
Christchurch hosted rugby league royalty on Friday, and the visit by Penrith Panthers GM Phil Gould heralded an ongoing bounty for the code in Canterbury.
A legendary former player and coach, and currently an influential administrator and high-profile media personality, ‘Gus’ Gould expressed his excitement about the Panthers’ partnership with the region.
Penrith will stage its NRL Round 10 home game against the Warriors at Christchurch’s AMI Stadium at 5pm on May 14, with 2016 marking the first of four seasons the Panthers will bring an official premiership match to the city.
“I’ve only been in the city for a few hours, but I’m already buoyed by the enthusiasm,” Gould said this morning at a packed press conference at AMI Stadium.
“This journey that led to the Panthers bringing one of our home games here each year for the next four years to Christchurch began several years ago. In the initial stages for us, from a commercial perspective, we were looking to take a couple of home games a year away from our base in Penrith, which we needed to do to increase the awareness of our brand and the commercial aspects of our operation.
Christchurch’s community need
Gould explained the process the club went through before settling on Christchurch as a viable alternate ‘home’ venue.
“The first home game we took away was to Bathurst, a NSW country area that the Panthers have a very strong affinity with. For the second game, we had a number of options.
“But from the time I arrived in Christchurch two and a half years ago there was just something about it – Christchurch had a different feel about it.
“Probably our motivation in the early stages for taking games away from Penrith was more based on a commercial reality.
“But there was more to this, there was a community need here that we recognised when we visited the city. From that time on, I have driven our team at the Panthers to make this become a reality. It was important that we became a part – and that rugby league as a code, and the NRL played its part – in the rebuilding of this city and this community.”
Gould’s desire to assist the earthquake-stricken city’s ongoing recovery was perhaps the most heartening – and surprising – aspect of the Panthers’ commitment to Christchurch, while he also stressed the importance of sport in general to any community, particularly for children.
“Already, in two and a half years, I can see a distinct difference in Christchurch. They’re obviously well on the way to rebuilding. I’m a sports lover, and all codes have a responsibility in assisting their community, in the education of kids and getting them involved in sports, and the team aspect of life,” Gould, a premiership-winning coach with Canterbury Bulldogs and the Panthers, enthused.
“Rugby league is certainly going to play its part in Christchurch, for as long as I can help it. We’re signed up for four years – I’d like to think there is no end date to this relationship. We’re going to become actively involved in the communities and the schools and assist those people here on the ground.
“We would hope that serves as a source of aspiration and inspiration for young people coming through. Personally, if it’s rugby league or another code, it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re playing sport and enjoying themselves.”
Home away from home
He reiterated that Christchurch, and the Canterbury region, appealed on a spiritual level as much as from a commercial and practical perspective – and the Panthers’ expertise in nurturing a widespread junior network is sure to prove invaluable for rugby league here.
“There’s a strong rugby league history in this area. It just felt good, it felt a little bit like home to us, actually. Not unlike Penrith, and the junior league and the community we have out there.
“We take our community responsibility very seriously in the Penrith district, we have the largest junior league in the world in that area. We have nine and a half thousand registered players out there, our junior league runs from Blacktown all the way to Katoomba in the west.
“And there’s a very strong New Zealand and Polynesian demographic – over 50 percent of our junior league kids are from New Zealand or Pacific Island nations. It was important to me that our NRL team, the fellas that are playing at the top level and are so visible, that we reflected that demographic in our recruitment and the players that we develop through.”
“In time – nothing happens overnight – but in time I’d like to see our club as a source of inspiration for young footballers growing up in the Canterbury and Christchurch area that want to aspire to bigger and better things.
“Eventually (it will be) with their own team, but if they’ve got to do that through the Panthers initially, we’ll welcome them with open arms. So for us, we’re positive it’s going to be a great association.
“We intend to over-deliver on the promises that we’ve made in this commitment, and the Panthers are going to become a part of Christchurch. And for the people of Penrith, this is their home away from home for the next four years.”
While Riccarton Knights junior – and former Warriors utility – Lewis Brown moved on from Penrith to Manly during the off-season, the Panthers still have an overwhelming strong flavour in their first-grade ranks. Kiwi stars Sam McKendry, Elijah Taylor, Dean Whare, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and recent recruit Peta Hiku are all key players at the club.
The record-breaking former NSW Origin mentor said the Panthers’ squad as a whole were looking forward to being a part of Christchurch’s first NRL fixture since the Warriors took on the Sydney Roosters in a thriller on a wintry day in 2010.
“Players look forward to this sort of thing. The Bathurst game has been extremely popular and beneficial to that town in NSW country, and we’re sure that our presence here is going to help Christchurch.
“It’s a home game, it’s a risk taking it away from our home base, but if you get on our side we’ll make it a home away from home. Hopefully you’ll cheer for us as the home team.”
Boon for Canterbury juniors
Gould also outlined the far-reaching assistance rugby league juniors and clubs will receive courtesy of Penrith’s involvement. While not the club’s primary reason for coming to Canterbury, the opportunity to attract the cream of the region’s talent is a likely off-shoot of the Panthers’ partnership with Christchurch.
“We’ll be over here and doing community work, appearances in schools and clinics, which are all about participation.
“The volunteer system in any sport, in any country, is one that’s got to be recognised and respected. It’s got to be supported, and we do that very well in our own area. So whatever we can lend to that program here is important. Not every kid is going to grow up to be an NRL player, but we want them to be an NRL fan or at least a sports-loving person who’s taking the benefit out of being a part of a team.
“There will be elite pathways, obviously, because that’s another attraction for us – it’s a strong area. Certainly any kid that has aspirations of playing higher, if the Panthers can play a part in that, we will.
“Tonight we’ve got a coach to coach program, the local coaches are coming in to listen to our High Performance Manager Matt Cameron, he’ll talk about coaching in the NRL and junior league areas.
“There are people in Christchurch with great ambition to eventually play some part in senior competitions over in Australia through the NSW Cup and eventually the NRL. That may seem a ways down the track, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and if we’re a part of that in the embryo stages then that will be great.”
The good of the game
Attention for the positive steps Gould and the Panthers are putting in place in Canterbury – and the work the NRL, its clubs and people throughout rugby league are doing at grassroots level – is timely given the manner in which an off-field controversy has yet again cast a shadow across the entire game.
After a couple of cursory questions about the Penrith-Christchurch relationship, television and newspaper media were falling over themselves to grill Gould on his thoughts about the Mitchell Pearce furore.
“We need that (positive) story to be getting out there every day and I think for a lot of the work that clubs and people in rugby league do, it’s very easily washed away by controversy and different things that happen,” Gould said.
“So we try to pump out the good stories as often as we can, and hope that it drowns out the noise of the odd bad or unsavoury incident.”
An inspirational city
Gould has clearly been moved by the story of Christchurch’s arduous past five years, praising its people for their character and determination to resurrect the city – all of which played a major part in compelling the Panthers to make their imprint in the region.
“I was astonished we I learned the story of how quickly this ground (AMI Stadium) went up and the reasons behind that. It was certainly inspiring at the time, and I know the people of this city have been through a tough time.
“When I visited here two and a half years ago, the earthquakes and the devastation was very raw, and I saw it myself right around the areas and the suburbs, having a look at what had happened.
“(Now) it’s a totally different perception. There’s a real resilience here at the moment. A lot of the raw emotion is obviously still there underneath, but it’s not showing. There’s a real ‘rebuild’ feel about it and that’s just talking to people as much as what I see around in construction and all that sort of thing.
“And that’s what appealed to me. It was a chance for our code and our club to play a part in the recovery of the city. Rebuilding it back into the great city that it was and will be forever. We want to be a part of the community.”
Gould also commended the NRL for getting behind the Panthers’ initiative.
“The moment we suggested to the NRL, and Dave Smith was the CEO at the time, I said, ‘Dave, I want to take a game to Christchurch’. He said, ‘100 percent, we’ll support it’. And they’ve been very supportive along the way.
“It’s taken time, but it had to take time. I was saying (this morning) to the Mayor, Lianne Dalziel, I’m sort of glad that it did take time because it will be done right and it will be the right time for Christchurch for this sort of thing to happen.
“I think the NRL will support this enormously and they’ll over-deliver on whatever promises we’ve made from the Panthers and it’ll be a great association for Christchurch.”
The once-fanciful prospect of Christchurch having an NRL franchise may not be such a pipe-dream after all, according to Gould, as the League continues to consider expansion avenues.
“(I’d support it) 100 percent, and look, there are people in this city that have that long-term view as well. It’s not easy, as we’ve seen a lot of times, it’s expensive to run an NRL franchise, and it takes a lot of time.
“Even the ones that have been doing it for a long, long time they’ve hit hurdles along the way. It’s a huge commitment, but if done right and done from the ground up there’s no reason why that can’t happen.
“It’s got to start somewhere, and if we’re a part of the start of that, I’m excited about that and if one day Christchurch says, ‘we don’t need the Panthers anymore, we’re coming to play you’, that’s well and good too.”
Gould said the revamped second-tier NSW Cup competition may be a more realistic starting point – and is certainly an opportunity the city should be exploring.
“I’m not sure where the League’s going with that, or just how expansive that will be. But that’s certainly an initial goal to a long-term end.
“There will be opportunities for more and more New Zealand-based teams to play in those second-tier competitions, which are an important part of our development process. We use them extensively in our junior league and the development of our players.”
Meanwhile, Canterbury Rugby League board member Justin Wallace – one half of promoters Wallace Douglas, who facilitated the agreement with the Panthers – and Christchurch City councillor Tim Srandrett both lauded Gould and the club for their endeavours in bringing the NRL back to the region and getting involved in local development.
“Christchurch is a city that loves our sport and loves rugby league. We are proud to be hosting an NRL game and we’d like to commend the Panthers for committing one of their home games to Christchurch over the next four years,” Wallace said.
“It’s been a long six years since we last had an NRL game in Christchurch. Hosting this game represents another step in the city’s recovery. This game is also a signal to Australia and the rest of the world that Christchurch is open and ready for business.
“This game brings us back to the spiritual home of rugby league, Rugby League Park, where it all began in 1912 when Canterbury played Wellington. We have been generous enough to offer our ground to our rugby union cousins, but to be honest, it’s going to be great to have our park back on May 14th.”
Scandrett echoed those sentiments:
“It’s a huge privilege for the council and Christchurch to be supporting this and we’d like to acknowledge the work Phil, Justin and Craig (Douglas) have done,” the councillor said.
“We weighed up the economic benefit and to the community, and what these guys have done and are planning to do in our community is absolutely fantastic.
“That’s really, for us, what got it across the line – what they’re going to do with our young players, the administrators, all the volunteers. We just think it a great opportunity for Christchurch. We’re in it for the long haul for sure.”
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE
Photo Credit: Kevin Clarke CMGStudios