How the west was lost again: Rugby’s battler club suffers another blow and this one could be fatal

I start this article with a cricket story, as you do.

A few years ago, I was at a university cricket club, one of the oldest student clubs on campus. We played in the Sydney Shires competition, were quite competitive and successful, things were looking okay. Until, we were kicked off our grounds.

We went searching for other turf wickets, all across Sydney. We went up to Newcastle, down to Wollongong, out west, there was nothing available. We tried everything, but inevitably, we made the tough decision to pull out of the competition and into the regional Northern Suburbs competition. Players were scattered to the wind.

It was one of the hardest decisions ever, but it proved to be the right one to keep the club alive and the history going. In just a few years, the club has gone from having one single side to having four grades in 2023.

Why does this matter? Because this brings me to a rugby club that has struggled for many years, but one we desperately need to keep going – the Penrith Emus.

The epitome of the ‘battler club’, the Emus were omitted from Canberra’s John I Dent Cup competition after two seasons, in a statement released by ACT Brumbies Media.

It has been a tough few years for the club following their removal from the Shute Shield in 2018, before a subsequent return in 2020 and removal in 2021, following a consistent failure to “meet the standards set for all clubs to compete at the premiership level”.

Following their second omission, the ACT & Southern NSW Rugby Union stepped in to offer Penrith a place in the John I Dent Cup competition, a decision that at the time was unanimously supported by the premier grade clubs in Canberra.

Penrith were required to field teams across 1st Grade, Womens, 2nd Grade and Colts, and there was a lot of hope the inclusion would breathe new life into the embattled Western Sydney club.

However, in their two seasons in the competition, neither first or second chalked up a win – 2023 saw their form on the field continue to slide, with a mid-season withdrawal of their second grade team. This, compounded with huge losses in first grade, and it felt like their continuation in the competition seemed untenable.

“The logistics of a team based at Nepean Rugby Park playing every second week in Canberra proved incredibly difficult,” the media statement said. “In the end there was a loss of support from the John I Dent Cup clubs for Penrith’s continuation next season.”

Granted, their time in the Canberra system has had its positives, with their Colts and Women’s teams performing strongly. Both teams made the finals in 2022, with the Women’s side falling just outside finals in 2023. Several players have gone onto further success in the Brumbies program, including in the ACT Brumbies Super W team, with further representation in the Griffins and Kestrels. Lleyton Tautua and Bonamarie Taiki were also instrumental in their Under-19s Rugby Championship campaign earlier this year, which the Brumbies won for the first time ever.

“The ACT&SNSWRU is keen to maintain a meaningful connection, particularly in the pathway space where several Penrith players have represented the ACT Brumbies U19s, ACT Brumbies Women and ACT & Southern NSW Kestrels and Griffins at the recent Australian Rugby Shield in Brisbane, with key players continuing to feature in the ACT Brumbies Academy,” the statement said.

“The door remains open and the opportunity for a return to the Canberra based competition would wholeheartedly be considered in the future.”

Penrith in action against the Queanbeyan Whites. Source: Jayzie Photography

What happens to the Emus now remains uncertain. Unless they can turn themselves around quickly, they find themselves in a difficult situation, and with that, so does rugby in Sydney’s far west.

While there are many clubs out west like Blue Mountains, Western Raptors, Blacktown and more, it makes sense to have a representative club in the mountains. Now, for those players looking for higher honours, the nearest option would be West Harbour or the Two Blues in Parramatta, a 40km+ drive away.

There are no easy the answers for Penrith, no magic solution. But the club folding and disappearing into history would not only be a huge loss, but it would also be the wrong choice, given the region the club represents and the opportunities that exist for rugby there. Sometimes, you have to look at the facts in front of you. Sometimes, you have to take your losses, move elsewhere, and begin again.

Until now, Penrith have spent many years trying to reach the goals of competitiveness set by other premier grade competitions. Is now the time for Penrith to look at what they themselves can achieve, right now, as they enter a new phase of their history?

The good news for them is that opportunities exist, especially right now, with plans unveiled by Phil Waugh to create an academy in Western Sydney, and with NSW Rugby passing their centralisation and alignment plan with Rugby Australia, opening up more opportunities for them to help cover the community game (at least in principle).

Do the Emus drop down and play in Suburban rugby like they did in the Nineties, joining the likes of Blue Mountains, Mosman, Drummoyne and more? Potentially. Their grades sides could be competitive at those levels, plus they have a strong colts and Womens program.

Do they link up with this planned academy? Potentially.

There are solutions available, and if given the chance, the ‘battler club’ can come back stronger than ever, not just for themselves, but for the game in Sydney’s far west.

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