Shute Shield divide: Juniors show rugby has a future in Western Sydney

Western Sydney Two Blues, and fellow western Sydney clubs Penrith Emus and West Harbour, are displaying their rugby depth out west through the hundreds of juniors they'll have competing in this weekend's NSW State Championships.

Fielding a team in every boys' junior division from Under 10s through to Opens Under 18s and more in the girls' divisions, the Two Blues will have one of the biggest contingents of players competing across tournaments in Sydney and all the way to Orange in the Central West of NSW. Penrith and West Harbour will field similar numbers as they dwarf the groups put together by teams such as Eastern Suburbs and Northern Suburbs.

The teams from out west have been a dominant force at junior levels for several years with the Two Blues winning a junior state trophy in either the boys' or girls' competition every year from 2016, with 2019 the only year a boys' team didn't win the title, while the Penrith Emus have had similar results, winning titles in 2019, '18, '17, '15 and '14.

The situation presents a completely different picture to the one being painted at senior level in Sydney, where a group of clubs have united to mandate demands on both playing numbers and financial turnover for Shute Shield involvement from next year.

The move was seen as a slap in the face for rugby in Western Sydney with the Two Blues, Penrith and West Harbour faced with a possibility of a merger if the proposed Shute Shield changes go through.

The Two Blues and West Harbour have already shown they won't go down without a fight, insisting they will be around for the long haul on their own.

And it is through their junior numbers that these clubs hope to show Sydney Rugby Union they not only remain viable within the Shute Shield competition, but also that rugby can again flourish in the western corridor of Sydney.

However, Two Blues president Brian Blacklock acknowledges there are systematic issues that must be addressed if the western Sydney clubs are to turn their junior rugby success into improved senior playing depth and results, specifically the player poaching from rival clubs and the always strong allure of a more defined pathway in rugby league.

"We're very encouraged by our juniors at the moment, we'll field a very, very strong contingent in the State Championships, that's ranging from Under 10s through to Under 18s, who are hopefully our next year's colts, but right now our playing stocks of senior players is very, very tight," Blacklock told ESPN. "The juniors are very important to us but it's moving them up through the system that's hard.

"We've got players looking for the best pathway for them to get as high as they can in the game, so if there are other clubs in other areas that can offer a better program and they see them as advantageous then we lose them.

"There's a lot of boys around 18, 19, 20-years-old who end up going off to rugby league because of the attraction of the money and potential to earn money. They then see the NRL dream, they get into the Parramatta Eels catchment system and they think they can make it. Whereas with rugby the pathway is a lot foggier.

"But let's make no bones about it, we haven't been a winning club, players don't want to come get flogged by other teams every week, so they'll look for the opportunity to play where they'll at least have the opportunity to win. But that then becomes a catch-22, if we keep losing players, how do we then build up players? There needs to be a concerted effort."

Blindsided by the strict terms of next year's Shute Shield participation agreement, the Two Blues alongside Penrith and West Harbour have been left scrambling to recruit a massive number of players to fill four grade sides as well as three colts teams - the Two Blues are currently fielding just two grade teams and one colts outfit.

With their backs against the wall to fulfill the terms ahead of next season, the Two Blues say they remain committed to working with sponsors and stakeholders to keep one of the oldest Australian rugby clubs alive. They'll be using one of their biggest draw cards in the newly built Eric Tweedale Stadium and the state-of-the-art gym facility set to be opened at the end of the year to entice Rugby Australia or NSW Rugby to create a rugby academy out west.

"We've got a lot of things going for us in the sense of our history and so on, but also the brand new field and gym facility coming online is going to be very attractive to play here," Blacklock told ESPN.

"Our purpose has been about improving our program, and now with the [gym] facility coming online and the potential for having a Western Sydney Waratahs Academy or even a Rugby Australia Academy based out of the new ground which has only just been in discussion -- nothing's been formalized -- then that would provide the impetus for kids to stay with the Two Blues and play there rather than go elsewhere."

Despite seven clubs coming together to create the strict participation agreement, Blacklock revealed some teams had offered to help support the club as they attempted to turn their fortunes around.

Rejecting the offers, he believes it shouldn't be down to other clubs to help finance rugby in western Sydney. Blacklock instead pointed to the much maligned governance structure within Australian rugby for many of the issues affecting rugby out west.

"I know a number of the seven clubs have offered to contribute some of their money, but that's not the point. While the money is helpful it shouldn't be down to these seven clubs to resource rugby in Western Sydney, it shouldn't be their responsibility it should be the governing body, but who is the governing body?

"SRU is just the group of presidents with a committee that runs the Sydney competition. We're just a voice as part of NSW Rugby and then NSW Rugby is just a voice to Rugby Australia. It's all over the joint. To me it's the whole governance structure.

"It's this three tiered hierarchy that makes any kind of synergy and any kind of distribution of resources very, very difficult.

"At the end of the day Rugby Australia is mostly concerned about having a competitive Wallabies, and then NSW have to focus on the Waratahs and so every time there's a slight disconnect at every level by the time it gets to club level, particularly struggling club level, it's every man for himself, it really is every man for himself."