In a boost for rugby union in Northern NSW, the New England and Central North competitions have voted to join forces.
Women’s and lower grade teams are set to be the major winners of the re-structure with more games set and a higher level of competition planned for the new year.
Central North registered their vote in favour of the prospective 2018 and 2019 integrated competition on Sunday, leaving the New England association to give the go-ahead for the proposal at a meeting on Tuesday night. New England Rugby president David Clifton said the result was met with a positive response from all clubs at the meeting.
“Over the next week or 10 days they will be working on a draft draw that we can send out to the clubs for discussion,” he said.
“The biggest winner out of all of this will be women's because we have had a very strong women's competition, Central North have not had such a strong women's comp and they have been looking at us for some time.”
One of the concerns for the new venture surrounds clubs who won’t be fielding first grade teams.
Glen Innes, Guyra and Gwydir have indicated they won’t play in the top tier competition with the River Rats showing interest as playing as Barraba’s second grade team.
Glen Innes and Guyra formed a merged club to play in New England’s first grade tournament this year.
Elks vice-president Sam Price said they will split for 2018 and the Glen Innes club are aiming to play in third grade.
“From a club perspective, we merged with Guyra this year but it didn't really alleviate our number issues, we still battled as a merged club with numbers,” he said.
“The intention when we merged with Guyra this year was we were looking to build a long-term merger and it didn't really work out.”
Price believes playing the lower grade and potentially having more success than in previous years in New England’s first grade competition could help boost the sport in the town.
“I think we are probably going to settle for third grade just to build some interest and then get some club spirit back in,” he said.
“We will have a couple of years in the lower grades and hopefully we can develop some talent and draw some of the younger blokes that weren't interested in coming to play when you are getting beat by those larger margins.”
Questions remain over how a club fielding only a second or third grade team will fall into the new draw.
There have been suggestions to align lower grade clubs with first grade teams and Clifton said there will be trial and error in the early stages but the associations will work to make the competition forge ahead.
“That could be the case and we have done that in the past sometimes where they have only had a second grade side, we have slotted them in with one of the other teams,” he said.
“The main issue for us is trying to ensure that they have home games then the enthusiasm goes away - they can't attract sponsors and so on.
“That's our idea, it is going to be that some of the stronger clubs are going to have to play in some of these centres from time-to-time, we have promised them that.
“The idea of this combined competition is to provide games for everybody so it is certainly going to be a fantastic opportunity for rugby in this area.”