It is often said that home is where the heart is.
If that is the case then the beating heart of rugby league is in the regional areas where so many of the game’s biggest stars have been produced and where a plethora of volunteers give of their time to ensure suitable competitions are in place.
Which is why the NRL’s Road to Regions program that is travelling around the vast interior of Australia in February is so important.
NRL.com caught up with NRL game development officer Mitchell Sargent on his trip with Wests Tigers star Tim Grant and Brisbane Broncos recruit Jack Bird to the South Burnett region of Queensland and centres such as Wondai, Murgon and Kingaroy.
The aim of the program is to support rugby league communities in regional and remote areas of Australia where there is no, or limited, NRL club engagement, to ensure the grassroots succeeds and the game grows.
NRL players and Jillaroos, past and present, including Cameron King, Anthony Minichiello, Kyle Laybutt, Cheyse Blair, Kurt Capewell and Simaima Taufa are also taking part in the program on tours in other regions.
Sargent is one of 11 NRL game development officers in Central Queensland with a jurisdiction stretching from Texas, on the border with NSW, all the way through to Rockhampton.
“The Road to Regions visits are is all about showing support to the grassroots of rugby league because the NRL community does care about them and we want to succeed,” he told NRL.com.
“Without the grassroots thriving, the product of rugby league will die.
“Our 11 Central Queensland development officers cover an area twice the size of NSW and they all put in a lot of work, so it is great to see these programs to come out here.
“When you see the kids come out to the clinics and the smiles on their faces you know that rugby league is doing a great job.”
Sargent said more than 1500 children were contacted during the two days.
“Between Jack Bird and Tim Grant we visited eight schools in one day,” Sargent said.
“Birdy spoke to the children about healthy eating, how important it is to go to school each day and learn and how playing a sport like rugby league can be a great vehicle for getting them fit and healthy.
“It is great for such high calibre players to be released by their clubs because the kids know them and interact with them straight away.
“A guy like Jack Bird has a high profile and has brought a real professionalism and enthusiasm to this tour, and that means a lot to these local communities.
“Tim Grant is a big, friendly giant and the kids love him. He is enjoying his time. Tim and Jack have been sensational.”
Bird said he enjoyed the chance to give back to the communities off the beaten track.
“It’s all about the kids,” Bird said.
“They don’t get to see many NRL players out this way.”
Grant said visiting remote areas reinforced how “blessed we are to do what we do for a living”.
“When you are in the bubble of everyday NRL you get in your own zone and it is all about Wests Tigers and what you do day-to-day,” he said.
“The young people out here love the game so much and are trying really hard to make it.”
Grant, who has played State of Origin for NSW, also got a real sense of how much the Maroons mean to young Queenslanders
He joked about asking the students who supported the Blues. Needless to say, no hands went up.
“They hate NSW at an early age and that comes out in their footy later in life,” Grant grinned.
“Their passion is good to see.”
Clinics were also conducted for aspiring coaches, while on day one of the tour the NRL stars played some golf with volunteer administrators and officials from the local competitions.
“It is important to thank the club administrators for the job they do, and keep them inspired, because without them we wouldn’t have a rugby league competition,” Sargent said.