The Illawarra Rugby League will shift to a newly created division next season after several clubs threatened to withdraw from the first grade competition altogether over the exorbitant costs and administration demands required to meet the NSW Rugby League's 'Major Competitions' status.
Illawarra's first grade competition was elevated to 'Major Competitions' pre-COVID ahead of the looming merger of the NSWRL and the former Country Rugby League.
It initially placed it alongside the Ron Massey Cup and Newcastle competitions, ostensibly as conferences of a state-wide 'Presidents Cup'.
Newcastle withdrew from major competitions at the end of last season and the Illawarra competition will follow suit in 2024, with clubs saying the demands of employing a game-day club doctor, "absurdly long" contract registration processes and Sydney-based judiciary proceedings were driving volunteers and committee people out of the game.
There's also a belief that arduous administrative and financial demands are prohibitive when it comes to enticing other clubs to enter the competition on the back of a season that saw first grade again reduced to just six teams following the withdrawal of Helensburgh and Cronulla Caringbah - the latter after just one year in the Illawarra.
Fellow Shire club De La Salle remained in the Illawarra competition for a second year this season, claiming the minor premiership before bowing out at the prelim final stage.
It's understood De La will remain in the Illawarra as part of a new competition class that will sit above 'community' level, the specifics of which are yet to be finalised.
Club representatives made those feelings known at a meeting with NSWRL officials on August 21 that saw a vote to withdraw from major competitions carried.
Long-time Collegians president Bruce Prior said the added administrative toll came with no benefit whatsoever to the competition and that the Illawarra League has been "left behind" by the NSWRL-CRL merger.
"I haven't seen one thing that I can sit down and honestly argue the point that we're better off under the NSW Rugby League," Prior told the Mercury.
"I know they're running the game, they took over the Country Rugby League, but they've left us behind. When they merged, they said it was going to be like being struck on the arse with a rainbow for country rugby league and the grassroots.
"We are the grassroots and the grass roots has gone further backwards since the merge to the point where they've just left us behind. It's diabolical.
"They're driving volunteers out of the game in droves, because there's too many hurdles that the poor old officials have got to jump through. These are volunteers, they're the lifeblood of your club and the lifeblood of the game.
"You can sugarcoat it all you like, you can give it different names, but at the end of the day we are still country rugby league.
"We're no better off under that (NSWRL) regime, as a matter of fact, we're worse off. At least if we go back to where we were it eases that [administrative] burden."
Having struggled to field sides in recent seasons, Dapto fell just short of finals football in first grade this year while also fielding reserve grade, though convoluted registration requirements hindered the club's ability to promote from the latter.
It was a frustration expressed by multiple clubs, with Canaries president David Jones saying the demands were to a point where the club would not have entered a first grade side in 2024 had the major competitions conditions remained in place.
"The governance and the requirements of remaining in the competition was too much for Dapto and our committee said 'we don't want to be a part of that, it doesn't offer us anything'," Jones said.
"It's actually hindered [us]. Just the ability to move players from first division (reserve grade) to first grade wasn't seamless. You had to give every player in your club a docusign contract which is 26 pages long. There was just way too much work to be done for a volunteer committee."
It comes amid other frustrations and concerns over the direction of the competition since the merger, including the fact the 2023 season was conducted without a general manager of rugby league in place after Nigel Roy departed at the end of last a year having spent just 12 months in the role.
Roy has not been replaced, with Steelers chairman Graeme Gulloch confirming management of football operations will be part of recently appointed licensed club general manager Rowen Cole's remit moving forward.
Though it's in its "very early days" Gulloch said the board has also initiated a full strategic review of all football operations, including the make-up and direction of senior competitions.
"The committee's met once, there's been some information sharing and information gathering already underway," Gulloch said.
"We've connected with others in the game because the sort of challenges that we face in the Illawarra are faced by other areas in the game, we're not alone. The game is still attractive and we've got to do what we can to make sure that we strengthen the whole system.
"I think we're all looking at what the solutions are in order that the competition maintains its high standards, but has a footing for the future. That's not on any one party, we've got to work on the health of the game overall in our district.
"The success of De La's involvement over the last couple of years is testament to a model that didn't exist a few years ago and could show us something about the future.
"If the question is how the competition's run and what happens from year to year, everybody's listening and everybody's working on trying to make things better all round."
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