Local codes all happy and secure with their growth

THE AFL's plans to invest heavily in the Northern Rivers will not affect participation in rugby union, rugby league or soccer, according those codes' local bosses.

Earlier this week, The Star revealed the AFL was planning to use some of its $45 million nation-wide future fund in the region to develop elite players and a supporter-base ready for when the new Gold Coast Football Club joins the national competition in 2011.

An elite training program for 14 young talents, full-time community development officers, school-based education programs and a huge financial backing from the AFL were key features of the code's commitment to the area.

But Junior Rugby League Group 1 president Rick Lennon said the AFL's plan did not offer opportunities other codes didn't already provide.

"The AFL has been running a junior competition here for a few years and it certainly hasn't had an impact on our junior rugby league," Lennon said.

"Our ranks have been growing by five to six per cent each year.

"We have a number of kids who are on development programs with the Broncos and Parramatta and particularly now with the Titans.

"The Australian Rugby League and Country Rugby League have been coming in and doing stuff in schools for the past five years.

"There's nothing new with the development officers ... we've had them on the ground for years.

Lennon said he expected AFL support to grow in the community but not at the expense of rugby league.

"Kids are going to play whatever they enjoy playing," he said.

"It's up to us to market the game as a safe and enjoyable sport for kids to play.

"I think we've got a strong enough following of rugby league at the moment but I see it as a challenge for us to continually work to improve the game and the way we administer the game."

Far North Coast Rugby Union president Tony Heeson said while he expected AFL to take off locally, he said it would not come at the expense of rugby union.

"There's definitely potential for them to grow in the Northern Rivers with a team coming in on the Gold Coast," Heeson said.

"My loyalties lie to rugby union but I'm practical enough to know they're going to try to grow the sport as much as they can.

"They've spent a lot of money trying to grow Aussie rules (around the country) and if they invest the money in this area, if they're prepared to invest in local players, I suppose it will (become more popular).

"It's just competition."

But in the end, Heeson expects the extra AFL players to come from soccer.

"The number of juniors playing rugby in this zone is pretty high. There's been a determined effort by the zone over a number of years to promote junior rugby," he said.

"It is not as though we're sitting on our hands doing nothing. Most clubs are trying to grow their juniors.

"Until two years ago Bangalow only had one team. Now it has two juniors and one senior team so the growth has been quite spectacular for rugby in Bangalow but it still falls way behind soccer which has 14 junior teams in the same town.

"It's soccer that stands to lose the most; they've got more juniors than anybody else."

But Football Far North Coast president Matt Kelso said soccer was strong enough to survive the predicted growth spurt in the sport.

"I don't want to make it a competition between the codes because I don't think that it's productive for either of us," Kelso said.

"I think it's inevitable that it will grow. It will be no different to what we've seen with the expansion of the NRL into the Gold Coast.

"But children in country regions are more inclined to participate in a variety of sports.

"They (junior AFL) play on Sunday; we play on Saturday, so they (kids) can do both."

Kelso also said an A-League team was set to move into the Gold Coast for the 2009-10 season which would reduce the likelihood of talented soccer players switching codes for better opportunities.

"If that (the Gold Coast A-League team) comes about, that will be ahead of the AFL's intended franchise, he said.

"Any player who may look at an opportunity to go to Aussie Rules might have similar opportunities available to play football at the top level in this country.

"Players in our zone have a huge opportunity to work hard on their game and hopefully move in that direction.

"Historically, this is more of a rugby league and rugby union area but between ourselves and Gold Coast soccer, we have around 15,000 participants. Aussie rules has nowhere near that number.

"Over the last seven years the number of local players has increased by 50 per cent from 5000 to 7500 and there is no indication to suggest that won't continue.

"Barry Hall did us the world of good the other week."

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