The long road for Penrith's country kids

When it comes to making it all the way to the top grade, a certain constitution is needed.

Talent and skill are important. In the current junior development system, some players are already identified by the age of 12 as being a cut above the rest.

But physical ability can only get you so far.

An innate drive to be the best you can be – to work hard and yet still remain humble – determines how far you will go.

For some, the commitment is too much.

For others, they are willing to go the extra mile – 201 kilometres to be exact, in the case of Jack Cole.

From Orange to Penrith: Jack’s journey

The halfback for the Panthers Harold Matthews side knows each and every stretch of the meandering Great Western Highway between Penrith and his hometown of Orange.

It’s a six-hour round trip – one he makes every week, even when the team isn’t playing, to join his teammates on a Friday afternoon for training.

Jack spent around 88 hours on the road during the 2019 season. That’s almost seven-and-a-half hours driving time committed to each game.

Jack Cole with mother Sasha and father Daryl.
Jack Cole with mother Sasha and father Daryl.

And for his mother Sasha, it is a sacrifice she will continue to make.

“When you see your child as motivated as what Jack is, you want to give them every opportunity to follow their dreams,” she said.

“He’s the one that gets himself up at 6am in the morning to go to the gym, takes himself to Waratahs every Thursday to do fitness.

“For him to put all that effort in, it isn’t much from us to drive him down there (to Penrith).”

When asked why he makes the long drive every weekend, Jack’s answer was simple.

“Because I want to play footy.”

Some settle to play in their local football team. Jack, well he’s up in the early hours of the morning at Orange Central Fitness, focused on making every rep better than the last.

And for his father Daryl, the maturity hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Some mornings when he doesn’t feel like it, he just does it.

“It’s been noticeable around town.

“People who go to the gym or who are involved in the junior club comment on how much of a hard worker he is.”

At just 15 years old, no matter his path in life, there is still a long road ahead.

On his journey along the Great Western Highway, however, Sasha says that above everything else, Jack has always remained humble.

“He still remains grounded. He hasn’t let it get to his head,” she said.

“He’s very focused and it’s all him – he puts in the work.

“We don’t want him to think this [football] is his only option but we are certainly prepared to do everything we can to help him pursue that opportunity.”

From Bathurst to Penrith: Brad’s journey

Bathurst-born SG Ball forward Brad Fearnley takes pride in Liam Martin’s story.

Martin followed a similar path to Brad and Jack, travelling over 400 kilometres to Penrith during his junior years from Temora, before making his first grade debut in Round 3 against Melbourne.

“It just makes it seem achievable – to make the NRL,” Brad said.

“Seeing how much it meant to him coming from a country town; it gives me that much more motivation, knowing he’s worked as hard as he can.”

Brad Fearnley playing for the Panthers SG Ball side.
Brad Fearnley playing for the Panthers SG Ball side.

Martin was the club’s first “gypsy” – the nickname the club gave to the country kids who would float in and out during the week.

None complained about the tedious travel though. In fact, according to Academy Program Manager Sam Jones, the hardest thing is having enough for them to do.

“Sometimes we have to speak to some of our juniors that can’t be bothered and then there’s these country kids, some of which travel three hours just to get here and they love it, it’s never a chore for them,” he said.

“The hardest thing for us is to tell them to do less.”

Hard work is certainly something Fearnley hasn’t shied away from. 

The versatile lock may have spent 60-odd hours on the road this season, but that hasn’t stopped him from working every Wednesday night as a kitchen hand and training two nights a week with the local footy side.

Add to that he is also the school captain of Bathurst High School.

It’s all worth it for the 17-year-old, who hopes to follow in brother Adam’s footsteps and qualify for the Jersey Flegg squad next season.

“I just want to play in a Penrith jersey,” he said.

“It’s a massive opportunity and I’m just really gratefully to the club and my parents for how much they sacrifice to have helped me to where I am now.”

And his dad John says that while a career in first grade is hard to come by, Brad’s work ethic sets him up well for any future endeavours.

“He has never missed a training session or work all year,” John said.

“He is very grounded and appreciative.

“At the end of the day, he has given himself every opportunity to succeed in footy.”

With one of the best junior systems in the country, the Panthers have taken it upon themselves to invest heavily in pushing for grassroots development in Central West NSW.

This year alone, Jake Hay (Gundagai) and Jesse Buchan (Orange) joined Jack as country products in the Harold Matthews side while Benji Glasheen (Parkes) played alongside Brad in the SG Ball team.

And for Academy Program Manager Sam Jones, the greatest joy is watching their young prospects like Martin rewarded for their dedication.

“The biggest fulfilment we get is seeing kids make it all the way through when they debut."