Rugby Union: Central North and New England considering a combined competition for 2018

Change in the air: If a proposal to join forces with New England is adopted next season Pirates might be the last side to hold the Heath Shield.
Change in the air: If a proposal to join forces with New England is adopted next season Pirates might be the last side to hold the Heath Shield.

The structure of the proposed new ‘integrated’ competition between Central North and New England looms as a decisive factor in the concept going ahead.

The working group established is currently formulating a model to present to the clubs at the end of this week after both zones at their respective annual general meetings voted to explore the idea.

It’s not the first time the concept of the two competitions combining has been floated and re-elected Central North president Tony Byrnes concedes there is a lot of details still to be worked out. 

But there is a willingness from both zones to consider the proposal.

“We’re both on the same road, although it may be pot-holed,” Byrnes said.

Understandably there is some hesitancy but Byrnes said the discussions so far have been “very encouraging”.

“Personally I feel there is strong support of this now,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone put their hands up and said that it won’t work.”

It’s a matter now of whether they can come up with a workable and palatable model.

At the heart is preserving rugby in the region and making it viable into the future.

“What’s on offer is a much bigger critical mass of rugby clubs, which creates better opportunities to create a viable competition,” he said.

“It has been described as we’ve got the breadth with 10 clubs and New England have got the depth.”

As well as an established women’s competition they have three senior grades.

“The bigger picture school of thought is that unless we do something New England might only have four senior clubs and us in a couple of years might only have seven,” Byrnes said.

He recognises the need to maintain their identity and that there are things they need to protect. Like their feature games such as Moree v Narrabri and Pirates v Tamworth, and for New England the college derbies.

Among the concerns are what would happen in the university holidays and also the amount of travel that might be involved.

There is no specific time frame, but Byrnes, as do the clubs, would like to have it settled as soon as possible so they can start planning for next season.

He said the model presented will be a “loose model with options” and they will be consulting with the clubs.

As for the clubs, the sentiment is very much one of waiting and seeing what is put forward.

Pirates president Stuart Prowse is supportive of the broader concept and pleased it is being discussed but admits there are “pros and cons that have got to be considered”.

“Like all clubs we are waiting to see what proposals come through and how it can be structured,” he said.

“It will come down to what they can put on the table.”

Should the competition go ahead he believes it would add a new dimension to rugby in the region.

“The positive is you’d have a lot more variety of rugby and lot more different styles,” he said, adding that from discussions with his players they are looking forward to the challenge of playing different styles.

Inverell president Josh Phillips said they support the concept in principle but said that they also don’t want to lose the strength of the competition. Not to say that joining with New England would do that.

But not having seen a model they don’t know what the impact will be.

Gunnedah vice-president Sam Leys expressed similar views. 

“It’s hard to make a judgement until we see a plan,” Leys said.