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Penrith's country contingent going the distance

The Panthers’ junior development system is home to dozens of rising stars, including a particularly dedicated collection of country-based players, who are willing to do what it takes to pursue their NRL ambitions.

Training four afternoons a week, the Harold Matthews and SG Ball squad members carefully balance their time between football commitments, school and part-time employment.

But for the club's country contingent, it's more complicated than that.

Born and bred in Western NSW, this group of young Panthers spend more than ten hours travelling to and from Penrith for training each week as they strive for a career in professional Rugby League.

To ensure they are keeping pace with their Panthers teammates, they also complete their own solo training sessions back in their home towns.

It can often get lonely, but commitment and determination drives their success.

With Isaah Yeo, Dylan Edwards, Charlie Staines and Liam Martin paving the way for country kids, the idea of making an NRL debut for Panthers seems within reach.

Harold Matthews Cup

Led by head coach Kyle Churchill, the 41-strong squad of players aged 15 to 17 are in the midst of their preparation for the 2022 season.

Focusing on fitness, ball skills and technique, the players are acquiring new skills whilst also ensuring they have the Rugby League basics covered.

But for country-based Angus Thompson and Braith Boyd, success in the program requires a higher level of personal initiative and dedication.

Making the long trek to Penrith from Western NSW on a Friday, the teens join the rest of the Harold Matthews squad for only two sessions a week.

Angus Thompson and Braith Boyd.
Angus Thompson and Braith Boyd. ©Penrith Panthers

Orange to Penrith: Angus’ journey

At just 15 years old, Angus Thompson has recognised that in order to achieve his goals, he needs to go above and beyond other athletes his age.

The second-rower from Orange divides his time between working at Bunnings, attending school and training in his local gym.

His week looks very different compared to the other players in the squad, but he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I guess I see the bright future ahead of me,” he said.

“Being able to watch so many other country boys in the NRL every week drives me to put in the extra effort each day.

“Knowing I could be like them one day is what keeps me going.”

Warren to Penrith: Braith’s journey

In his first term of Year 12, Braith Boyd attends school for the first four days of the week, before using Friday to travel from Warren to Penrith for training.

It’s a six-hour trek on a good day, with his parents driving him to Dubbo, where he joins a few more squad members on the familiar journey to the foot of the mountains.

Given a training program to follow like all the other country players, he’s accompanied by music on his running sessions, rather than the rest of the squad.

Braith admits that sometimes self-motivation does get tough, but the life lessons he’s learning at such a young age makes it all worth it.

“This experience is something I’m going to take with me for a long time,” he said.

“Even just having the opportunity to train in the Panthers environment is something I’m very grateful for.

“I love being around the boys and learning off them every time we train.

“As a kid from the country, I’m not constantly exposed to such a high level of footy so I’m really enjoying it.”

SG Ball Cup

As SG Ball squad members begin the process of graduating from high school, they’ve started to focus on life after Year 12, seeking out apprenticeships and university offers.

But for two rising country stars, their commitment to rugby league extends further than a few hours of training each day.

Recently moving to Sydney to chase their football dreams, Bill Statham and Billy Phillips have their sights set on a future in the game.

They’ll always be country kids at heart, but being able to train with the squad almost every day will maximise their opportunities.

Billy Phillips and Bill Statham.
Billy Phillips and Bill Statham. ©Penrith Panthers

Cowra to Penrith: Bill’s journey

The last two months have been a whirlwind for Bill Statham, who returned to training in the Panthers’ SG Ball squad whilst completing his HSC.

Originally driving more than 20 hours a week to attend training, Bill still showed up every afternoon with a smile on his face, ready to prove his worth on the field.

But the grin hides the sacrifice and stress in his schedule.

Arriving home at around 10.30pm each night following the three-and-a-half-hour drive home from training, Bill would dive head first into studying for his exams.

Staying up until almost midnight, he would have a limited amount of sleep before waking up and cramming in more study before heading to St Stanislaus’ College in Bathurst to complete his exams.

Hoping to study Policing at Western Sydney University alongside his football career, he knows that this period of hard work will benefit him down the track.

“I know Isaah Yeo has a really strong work ethic... I really look up to that,” he said.

“Knowing that he’s a country kid and is now successful drives me to put in those extra hours of travel.

“Some days I would have to miss training because my exams overlapped and it was really difficult.

“But I know this is where I want to be, and I’m really focused on that final result of hopefully making the team and being recognised for my efforts.”

Lake Cargelligo to Penrith: Billy’s journey

Growing up on a farm near Forbes in Western NSW, Billy Phillips is no stranger to long days of hard work.

Two months ago, he would wake up before sunrise and begin an extensive day of harvesting wheat, barley and oats before heading home and completing his training program.

Now, he has moved to Sydney to chase his dreams, having gained a building apprenticeship while training as a member of the SG Ball squad.

It’s a huge change for the kid who used to spend countless hours in the car each week to attend two sessions, but it’s the success of the other country Panthers that continues to inspire Billy.

“Moving to Sydney is a big change but I’m slowly getting used to it,” he said.

“I’ve got so much more time now to focus on training full time instead of just Friday and Saturday.

“Seeing Charlie Staines and Isaah Yeo progress through the system knowing they come from towns near where I’m from shows that country kids like me can succeed in the NRL.

“Building and footy are two things I love and I’m thankful for both opportunities.”