Chairman John Crooks said the Newcastle Rugby League had little choice but to accept the scrapping of the NSW senior country championship in favour of an under-23 knockout.
Country Rugby League regional representatives, including Crooks, voted on Friday to accept the change as the CRL tries to even up the country championship and give younger players a “pathway” to the NSW Cup or National Rugby League.
The three regions that house NRL clubs, Newcastle, Illawarra and Canberra, have long dominated the country titles. Newcastle and Illawarra have won each of the past six championships, and Canberra are the only other team to have made the final in that time.
The change to under-23s will mean the Newcastle Rebels team that won this year’s final against Illawarra in June will not get a chance to defend their crown.
Crooks said the Newcastle players, none of whom were under 23, were disappointed. Nine of them were chosen in the NSW Country team that toured Samoa last month.
“It will be a completely different group of players. From memory all our blokes were over 23 this year,” he said.
“I’ve spoken to some of them a couple of weeks ago because I knew this was in the wind. They weren’t too happy because they love playing rep footy, particularly because of the quality of the trips they go on nowadays.
“I didn’t play for Country until I was 27 or 28, and I loved it, but the landscape of the game’s changed a bit since then.
“It’s all been driven down from the top. It’s about pathways now. That’s a really big issue. The CRL thought that picking rep sides with players who have already played in the NRL, or who wanted to play in the NRL, they usually get there by the age of 23, so that was the number settled on by the CRL board.”
Crooks said Newcastle would still have a stand-alone team in the new 10-team under-23 knockout competition but said the change in age group would put the regions on a more “equal footing”. The Upper Hunter’s Group 21 would align with the Northern Tigers and Group 3 with the East Coast Dolphins.
“They’ve all got pretty similar numbers to choose from. I think Newcastle have 348 or 350 based on this year’s figures. Some of the regions have a little bit more, and some have a little bit less.
“There’ll be no rep footy for players over 23, but there’s still a pathway for those guys to go to NRL if they’re late developers because there’s always someone watching.”
Crooks conceded the big three did not leave room for other areas to enjoy success.
“Thoughts are, if everyone’s limited to 23s, that will get rid of the NRL component and you should have a better-quality competition, or more even competition.
“I think Newcastle and Illawarra probably contributed to it a bit because we pick a couple of ex-NRL players in our side. Realistically they’ve probably had their day in the sun. Personally, I thought 23s was a bit low. I thought 25 would have been more appropriate age, because forwards usually develop a bit later than the backs.”