ON TOP: Sawtell Panthers wide men Kalani Morris and Damien Irvine lay a tackle on the Woolgoolga Seahorses man during the reserve grade elimination final at Frank McGuren Park.
ON TOP: Sawtell Panthers wide men Kalani Morris and Damien Irvine lay a tackle on the Woolgoolga Seahorses man during the reserve grade elimination final at Frank McGuren Park. Mitchell Keenan

Sawtell leading by example as code battle heats up

RUGBY LEAGUE: It has been a difficult year in rugby league on the North Coast, with a spike in participant numbers across multiple codes, but the Sawtell Panthers have been a beaming light for junior footy.

Group 2 clubs like the Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels had a strong year in the junior ranks but the Panthers had always led by example with the best junior base.

Sawtell president Darin Downton said it was an "exceptional year for the club”, with some top results, including reserve-grade premiers.

"We had all teams playing in the finals, there's so much young talent in the camp so I'm really happy with where we are,” he said.

"We had over 300 juniors at the club this year, we've always had the strongest juniors in the competition.”

Downton was from a region of the country that knew only rugby league but he said there was a lot more competition from other codes on the North Coast.

"You've got a lot of different sports to compete with, where I'm from there was no competition but here we've got to make it with the best and find ways to get them involved,” he said.

"I'd like to see them look after junior rugby league a little bit more. There are a lot of clubs that didn't have 15s or 16s this year so there's something going wrong there.

"That's one thing they need to look at, give kids better opportunities to play the best sport in the world.”

Downton believed juniors were key in future success and he hoped to see more done by Country Rugby League and even the NRL in regional locations.

"People like Mark, Damien Irvine and Bec House have done a fantastic job running the junior footy at the club and as long as we keep them with us we'll always have a strong foundation,” he said.

"We didn't have a 15s side this year but that's a bigger problem. We need to look at schools and how to keep these kids in the game into the future.

"We're lucky to have Gary Stephenson on board, he does a lot of work in development with CRL up and down the coast but we need more of it in rural areas. There's got to be more of a push from NRL clubs to provide that pathway.”

Grafton Ghosts president Gary Gillespie also felt there was a bigger problem with junior footy becoming more disjointed from the senior game in the Clarence Valley.

"CRL need to find ways to make the competition more user-friendly or they'll keep losing kids to other local sports,” Gillespie said.

"When kids are travelling up to two hours for a game it's really difficult, especially if the parents or older family members are playing somewhere an hour or two in the opposite direction the next day.”

Downton was still new to the club but was looking forward to watching the junior talent develop in the coming years.

"We've got a lot of juniors who have really stuck with the club and I say that's what makes us the best club in the competition,” he said.

"Having them coming through, the sky is the limit for us - as long as we hold on to our players, I think we have a very bright future ahead.”



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