TIME TO TALK: Former Monto teacher and NRL development officer Richard Dugdale says he's
TIME TO TALK: Former Monto teacher and NRL development officer Richard Dugdale says he's "sure” the QRL would support a sustainable Central Burnett Rugby League solution. Brandon Livesay

'Can't pull players out of air'

RUGBY LEAGUE: Those who know Richard Dugdale say he's a good man and his heart is in the right place.

Dugdale is the NRL's game development manager for Central Queensland - the man with the unenviable task of growing the sport of rugby league in an area roughly the size of New South Wales.

The NRL and QRL frequently bear the brunt of criticism for the game's shortcomings and failures as many fans blame them for not doing enough to arrest the sport's dwindling grassroots base.

After all, they are the one's with the greatest financial incentive to do so.

The NRL generates enormous revenue through its $1.8 billion broadcast rights deal.

Its most valuable commodity are the 480 registered top-flight players.

The NRL cannot survive without talented players, many of whom come from the bush.

To ignore the decline of bush football is short- sighted, to say the least.

Though all the talk around rugby league of the coaching merry-go-round, refereeing (the bloody Bunker), expansion, contract disputes and the growth of the international game, one can't can't help but wonder if the NRL has its priorities out of order.

The game's governing body is putting the cart before the horse by refusing to address the country football slump.

Like most large bureaucracies, a persistent criticism of the NRL is the people making the decisions are out of touch.

They're meant to act in the best interests of the game, instead, they sit in their ivory towers in Brisbane and Sydney with little empathy or understanding for the people they're supposed to represent.

Or so the story goes.

That can't be said of Richard Dugdale.

Dugdale has history in the North Burnett: he lived and worked in Monto and played for the mighty Roos for more than a decade.

He has a fair understanding of the people here and what makes them tick.

Almost all clubs in the bush, sporting or otherwise, do it tough financially.

Dugdale said when organisations struggled, the first solution was always to throw money at the problem.

He questions whether the North Burnett's population can sustain four local teams.

He asks: "Will the money solve the problem? Where would you like us to spend it?”

"It's always a question of money,” he said.

"Is it just a short-term, bandaid solution for what is a much bigger problem than just the game of rugby league? We can't pull players out of thin air.”

The governing body regularly pays lip service to grassroots funding and "sharing profits among the game's stakeholders”.

ARL Commission chairman Peter Beattie assured us in June that "more money is going to grassroots than ever before”.

We'll have to take his word for it.

They tell us Central Burnett Rugby League's woes are not money related, which is probably true, but their own spending should raise eyebrows.

Pundits have been highly critical of the NRL's financial management.

The 16 NRL clubs take the lion's share of funding, and rightfully so, but it beggars belief how freely some NRL clubs squander the $13million handout they receive each year from the NRL.

Take, for example, the sacking of Penrith Panthers coach Anthony Griffin.

It's estimated the decision, made seemingly on a whim, cost the Panthers north of $1million.

Imagine how many bush competitions that kind of money could sustain.

The growth of the sport is the NRL's domain. It's their job to educate coaches, run holiday clinics, promote the game and offer opportunities at schools to recruit players into the club system.

Schoolboy footy is non-existent in the North Burnett.

Dugdale said this was not from a lack of trying.

He said if country rugby league was to prosper again, more people had to put their hand up to get involved.

"We continually offer school opportunities, however they are not supported by the schools,” he said.

"If they don't wish to participate in our programs, there is nothing we can do.

"The reality of any sport is you need to have volunteers who are committed for the long haul.

"You need someone who is highly committed to take the bull by the horns and run with it.

"We're happy to support those people but we really need them to put their hand up.”

The sport is in desperate need of some vision and direction from the top.

It needs leaders who are willing to think outside the box.

Rugby league's leading minds, both locally and nationally, need to get together to figure out a way forward.

Yes, the response must be community-driven but it also needs to be collaborative.

If regions lay the foundation, the NRL and QRL are more likely to come to the table.

The Intrust Super Premiership now holds Country Round, an initiative that brings matches to towns throughout Queensland's Central and Northern divisions - Mundubbera's Archer Park was the beneficiary last year.

It's a fantastic initiative that must continue.

Rugby league needs more ideas like this to attract the top players to the bush and inspire the next generation.

Country Round is all well and good but a more serious discussion is needed to turn the sport around.

Dugdale said the ball was in our court.

"(Bringing marquee players to the bush) does happen, whether or not it has any affect on participation I can't say,” he said.

"My first piece of advice is to hold a special meeting and invite people like myself.

"We need a constructive talk where clubs are prepared to be brutally honest and open about where they are.

"If (the Central Burnett Rugby League) is able to come up with a positive, sustainable solution for your area, then I'm sure the NRL and the QRL will support it.”

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