The rugby league community has reacted cautiously to Group 4’s major overhaul of its competitions, with leading figures in the sport saying there are big question marks attached to the move.
In a press release issued on Wednesday, Group 4 revealed that “following months of research, soul searching, consultation and discussion” 2018 would see a 10-team first grade competition and a 10-team reserve grade competition.
The long-signalled move to try and strengthen first grade has resulted in the successful Second Division being scrapped.
Under what Group 4 labelled a “rejuvenation” of league in the region, there will also be an eight-team under-18 competition (with the potential of more teams joining it in 2018), a 10-team first-grade ladies league tag comp and a six-team reserve-grade ladies league tag comp.
The existing six first grade clubs – reigning premiers North Tamworth, Narrabri, Gunnedah, Collegian, South West and Wee Waa – have been joined by Second Division clubs Kootingal-Moonbi, Boggabri, Werris Creek and Dungowan.
In reserve grade, North Tamworth, Narrabri, Gunnedah and Collegian have been joined by Second Division clubs Bundarra, Walcha, Uralla, Barraba, Bendemeer and Manilla.
Bingara – last in Second Division in 2017 and “on loan” from Group 19, according to Group 4 – will not field a team in any of the competitions.
North Tamworth, Narrabri and Gunnedah dominated first grade in the recently completed season, and league figures have questioned whether the revamp will remedy that imbalance.
Kootingal-Moonbi were the 2017 minor premiers but Boggabri, Werris Creek and Dungowan failed to make the finals.
Group 4 vice president Ray McCoy said the promoted sides would be “more than competitive” in the CRL-approved restructuring, adding that they “deserved to play a higher standard of rugby league”.
“And we wouldn’t have made the decision had we not thought we were taking Group 4 rugby league in the right direction,” he said.
McCoy said that confidence stemmed from “watching games and seeing the quality rugby league being played”, and “probably more so seeing the quality people guiding the future of those clubs”.
He said the criteria used to promote the clubs also centred on their potential to grow, their deep community ties and their ability to provide a strong pathway from the junior to senior ranks.
League figures questioned how the draws will work, given there is a distinct lack of uniformity in terms of the clubs’ involvement across all competitions.
McCoy said the draws were yet to be done and Group 4 would do that with Scott Bone, CRL manager for the greater northern region.
McCoy said there would be a two-year approach to the draws, so that a team which played less home games than another team in the first year would get more home games the second year.
“We’ve got to make sure it’s equitable amongst all the clubs, but there will be compromises,” he said.
He added: “One of the exciting things now is we can expect the unexpected. We are excited to what 2018 will bring us.”
Tom Taber, president of reigning Second Division premiers Bundarra, believes that the promoted clubs may struggle in the top grade.
He said: “Unless the little towns spend money on players, they’re not going to be able to compete with the A-graders.
“How is a little town supposed to compete with North Tamworth? Unless those smaller towns attract good-class players, well, I don’t know.”
Taber is mystified as to why Bundarra was not promoted.
“They won the competition. I’m not saying we’d like to be [in first grade] but I don’t understand how they picked the teams that do go in,” he said.
Gunnedah coach Sean Hayne said he had “a lot questions” that needed answering.
“I’ll have to see how it’s all set out,” he said. “I’ve only seen the structure with no framework. What are the guidelines going to be? I guess until everyone knows what that is, everyone is still up in the air.”
He added: “The two teams that finished in the grand final [Bundarra and Barraba] are still in the second tier. I’ve got no idea how the promotion system worked or what it was based on.”
Boggabri president Greg Haire said it would be up to the club’s players to decide if they wanted to play first grade.
He said the club “would take it as we come”, although he admitted they had two choices: accept the promotion or “bloody fold”.
“So I’m hoping we’re gonna get into it,” he said.
He added: “I think we’re hoping [it works out]. We haven’t had a committee meeting yet. Hopefully we’ll have one on Monday. We’ll see what everyone thinks. It’s up to the players, I suppose.”
Narrabri first grade coach John Rumsby, who led the Blues to a grand final loss to North Tamworth this month, said the prospect of a 10-team top grade “sounds great”.
However, he has concerns about how the competitions will function, given the aforementioned lack of uniformity in terms of the clubs’ involvement across all competitions, and the chance existing first grade teams could be raided for players by the new arrivals.
“You could have a club that has to go to Barraba on Saturday for 18s and reserve grade and might have a home game on Sunday with first grade,” he said.
“I applaud some of the decisions and them trying to make a strong comp because it’s in the betterment of football,” he added. “It’s got great possibilities.
“I’m just interested about how much support the Country Rugby League gives it and other areas to really make this a go-ahead.”
Group 4 said that as part of the restructure, it was working closely with all clubs, the CRL and the local NRL development officers to “grow the under-18 competition”.
It said South West, Dungowan, Werris Creek and Manilla were “endeavouring to nominate teams” to join the 2018 comp.