Coal League problems deepen as Berkeley withdraw

ILLAWARRA LEAGUE

The Illawarra's premier rugby league competition will feature just six teams next year after Berkeley notified the Illawarra Coal League board that it will not field a first grade side in 2014.

Berkeley's withdrawal from the top-tier competition due to a shortage of players follows the departure of the Shellharbour Sharks, who confirmed in November that they would be returning to the Group Seven competition next year.

Coal League chairman Ian Neill said he was disappointed by Berkeley's departure and admitted it has placed the competition's long-term future in jeopardy.

"If we were to go any lower [than six teams] we'd be in deep trouble," Neill said.

"It is disappointing, we'd have liked to have seen them [Berkeley] go around again.

"They're hopeful of getting back.

"They haven't given us a timeframe yet but hopefully it's sooner rather than later."

Berkeley first met with the league board on October 29 to seek assistance in addressing the player shortage but Neill said their combined efforts, including discussions with Berkeley Sports' parent club Eastern Suburbs [Sydney], proved fruitless.

"They [Berkeley] told us they'd been struggling and they asked for some time but they just weren't able to attract any players," Neill said.

"We worked with them and we'd hoped Easts might be able to help them out with some players but unfortunately nothing came out of that."

Neill said the loss of Berkeley, who will continue to play in the reserve grade and Shield [third grade] competitions, has compounded Shellharbour's defection.

"I was pretty confident Shellharbour would be around for a long while," Neill said.

"They were very competitive but there were a few compounding things that all came at once."

The board is yet to finalise a six-team draw but hope to do so in the coming weeks.

"We're going with a three-round competition and we'll be going to a four-team semi-final series," Neill said.

"We're still working on it but we're pretty close to formulating a draw.

"There's a couple of big events coming up next year for certain clubs and they want home games at different times so we're working with them at the moment and trying to put a draw together that will suit everyone."

While the loss of two teams is a heavy blow for the competition, Neill said the quality of players and coaches at the remaining six clubs will ensure a high quality competition.

"The six sides still playing are very even," Neill said.

"Helensburgh played in that great grand final last year and they look to be very strong again.

"Dapto certainly seem to be the one on the improve with some of the players they've reportedly signed.

"They've brought a local bloke [coach Chris Leikvoll] back, he's a local junior out there so that'll help them.

"The quality of the teams is still very good."

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