After a challenging couple of years, the Illawarra Junior Rugby Union is hopeful the sport has started to turn a corner in the region.
With player numbers dwindling, the association was forced to make the tough decision not to run an Under 16 and 17 first XV competition in 2019. Despite the challenges in the older age group, the younger competitions thrived this season.
Illawarra Junior Rugby Union chairman Wayne Cusack said player numbers should start to rebound in the coming years.
"I think we've started to turn a corner," Cusack said. "We've planned our structure for the next year to tidy up the competition, realign our age groups and provide a better pathway into club rugby and senior rugby.
"We're going on a sustained recruitment drive across the region, led by the association, to help the clubs that are smaller and have lower numbers. We're looking at building the base and encouraging new players from other sports, rather than cannibalising from within."
The Illawarra board has spent the season consulting clubs, players and parents to determine the best way to grow junior rugby union in the Illawarra, with a number of changes planned for 2020.
In order to better align with representative programs and to alleviate concerns about physical disparities, the under 14 and 15 second XV competition will become an under 15 and 16 competition. A new standalone under 14 division is planned, while it is hoped two under 18 teams will play in Sydney.
Those two sides will be regionally aligned, with one based in Campbelltown and Camden and the other in Wollongong and it is hoped players will then graduate into the Illawarra senior rugby union competition.
While Cusack acknowledged it is a few years away, the long-term goal is for an Illawarra under 18 competition to be established.
"All the clubs that were at the meetings were in agreement with the planned changes. It will help reduce physical mismatches and align the competitions with the Country Championships.
"We expect for the foreseeable future we won't have enough numbers for what we would call a first XV competition, with the 17s and 18s. But if we can enter teams into the Sydney comp, we can still provide a better pathway into senior rugby."
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