How tiny pocket of NSW produced a Socceroo and a Matilda
IF YOU hop in the car and drive four hours north west-ish from Sydney, you'll arrive in a pocket of regional Australia known fondly as the Central West.
Just half an hour apart lies two small towns - Cowra and Canowindra - with a combined population of roughly 12,000.
Unbelievably, between them they've produced two Australian internationals in the same generation - and somehow, they even play the same position.
Cowra's Rhyan Grant joined Canowindra's Matildas sensation Ellie Carpenter as a national representative when he made his Socceroos debut against Lebanon on Tuesday night - a feat made all the more remarkable by the challenges facing regional footballers in making it at the elite level.
"I think it's pretty crazy," Carpenter told foxsports.com.au.
"But it tells you that no matter where you're from or where you grow up, if you have the right attitude and you want to play for your country you can actually make it happen.
"I feel like us two from the Central West and now we're in the Matildas and the Socceroos, I feel like that gives kids in the country and in rural areas hope that you can actually make it.
"It's a pretty cool story for those kids to look up to and inspires them to play for their country."
At just 18, Carpenter has already been a Matilda for three years after being fast-tracked through the national set-up.
She sees similarities between her own game and that of the newly capped Socceroo who grew up just a 30-minute drive away.
"I remember always watching him and thinking, 'Oh we're kind of similar the way we go forward,'" Carpenter said.
"I always thought that he was a right back I looked up to and I always thought he was so good in that position. I just feel like it's so weird we're from the same place - really close!"
Amazingly, the teen star had no knowledge of the geographical connection between the two, before it was pointed out to her.
The pair are arguably the two best right full backs in the country, both possessing incredible engines and a willingness to get up the park and attack.
Both Grant and Carpenter spent time during their development period in the Western Branch system - now known as the Western NSW Mariners after a deal with former Central Coast boss Lawrie McKinna.
Current Mariners Women's coaching and development manager Glenn Stedman had a chance to glimpse both as they came through - albeit roughly 10 years apart.
"They've got natural ability as far as pace goes," Stedman told foxsports.com.au.
"Big engines allow both of them to bound up and down that sideline and recover. Their athletic ability was probably always going to put them at the forefront as far as being selected."
While both players are stationed in the back line now, Grant actually began his career as a striker, as he was discovered by then Western technical director Richard Evans at just nine years of age.
"He first came to my attention as a nine-year-old," Evans told foxsports.com.au.
"Rhyan first came to my attention (when) he was playing for Bathurst as a striker - he was part of the program there and he just went right through our system.
"His attitude, his ability and his application to apply that ability (made him stand out as a youngster). He's got a huge motor, endurance capabilities, constantly going up and down and wasn't afraid to take people on. He got into one-on-one situations that he relished.
"He still shows those same capabilities, he's got a tremendous attitude and appetite for learning.
"When you talk to a group of kids, you've got some (who'll) look at you making eye contact, others will look away. When you spoke to Rhyan he was just constantly transfixed on you. He wouldn't turn his head away, he just wanted to take it all in and get out on the pitch and do it."
Both Grant and Carpenter eventually had to leave the Central West to pursue a career in football.
Grant headed to the NSW Institute of Sport, where coaches realised his potential as a defender and brought about a positional switch that has eventually led to a Socceroos berth.
Leaving home is a common occurrence for budding young sportspeople in the region, with players needing to relocate in order to be identified and continue their development.
"I think it's very hard to make it from the country if you stay there and you don't move to a bigger city or a different state," Carpenter said.
"I feel like the best thing I did was move when I was 12 because I knew I had to move somewhere where there was a lot more people and coaches and to get identified.
"And I feel like if you're from the country it's very hard to get noticed all the way out there unless you've impressed at a tournament or you play well in a tournament in Sydney or scouts are around. It's really hard if you don't go anywhere and you just stay out there in the Central West."
Stedman further outlined the challenges associated for young footballers in the region, with aspirants needing to essentially uproot their lives and move to a major city for a chance of making it, or alternatively make the "huge commitment" of making the three-plus hour trek back and forth multiple times a week to train and play games.
"Basically, they can come so far with us and then they've got to move," Stedman said.
"We can provide the grounding, the technical ability, but at the end of the day if they want to play at a higher level, they need to actually pack up and move. And that's the hard bit for anybody who's any good at any sport in a regional area.
"We just haven't got the hard week-in, week-out competition for them and if you're training with kids that are all about your ability you become better as well. The talent that these kids have got - we haven't got 15 or 16 of these kids a year. So, they've got to move and that's where the difficulty is for the parents and them."
It's a challenge that plagues sportspeople from across the nation's regional areas, and Carpenter is hoping to one day make a difference to people in her former home.
"One of my things I would love to do is go back out to Cowra and the Central West region," she said.
"I'd like to go there and set up a program for country girls to try and get identified in the Sydney area, give them some sort of pathway and guidance to try and make it."