For the second year in a row, the Leeton Phantoms have left it until the final stages of the preseason to withdraw from the Southern Inland Rugby Union (SIRU) first grade competition, with the club citing a lack of playing numbers as their main concern when making the tough decision late last week.
In 2020, the Phantoms were set to contest first grade, but only fielded a second-grade side after citing the same issues around playing numbers, before winning the competition after defeating Albury in the decider.
This season, Leeton won’t field a first or second grade side, instead choosing to play in the third-grade competition.
SIRU Competitions and Rugby Services Manager, Jack Heffernan, explained that the competition approved Leeton’s request in the interest of the club staying viable.
“They (Leeton) spoke to us last week and said they had eight men’s players, of which, half of them aren’t first grade quality,” Heffernan said.
“They knew where all their previous players were and that wasn’t in Leeton, so they basically made the call to pull out of first and second grade.
“Then they played around with ome options of working with other clubs and possibly combining, which wasn’t logistically going to work, so a decision was made to remove them from the men’s grades.”
A last-minute decision to enter third grade was deemed the only sensible response to the situation according to Heffernan.
“They then came to us with a proposal to pull together some old boys and fringe players to form a third-grade side,” Heffernan said.
“Obviously, at the end of the day, both SIRU and the other sides in the zone want to make sure Leeton field a side, knowing that if they have a year off, it would be very hard for them to come back.
“So, the decision has been made to allow them to have a third-grade team and women’s team for this year.”
Leeton ran riot in second grade last year with some very good players turning out for the Phantoms, and Heffernan said SIRU would be keeping a close eye on the club to make sure Leeton didn’t totally dominate the lowest grade in the competition.
“We have spoken about some of their key first-grade players and SIRU representative players who are still in town, particularly about them not playing third grade,” Heffernan said.
“We will be able to look at early results, and with the way the draw is structured, we would be able to move them into second grade if they start to win easily. We would probably look at results after the first two rounds and make a decision at that point.”
With Leeton not entering first and second grade, there will be changes to the SIRU draws.
“Second grade have benefited, they have a bye in there instead of 18 weeks straight and I know some of the clubs definitely appreciate that,” Heffernan said.
“In terms of the first-grade draw, it added in two byes, so we added in two random games to avoid teams having to separate from the second-grade sides throughout the season.”
Bulls president, David West, expressed his disappointment in the decision being made so close to the season commencing.
“It is disappointing for the game of rugby that the Leeton club had to withdraw so close to the start of the season,” West said.
West did feel for Leeton though, as he believed it was rugby league recruitment accompanied by the Covid-19 pandemic, which had caused the Phantoms most of their problems.
“Leeton Rugby Club relies heavily on seasonal workers and with the current pandemic situation we are in with border closures and the strong recruiting drive by Group 20, it has made it very hard for Leeton Rugby Club,” West said.
“I hope they can recover from this situation in the future, as it is very hard for any sporting organisation to regroup after folding. I wish John Hill and his committee all the best in the future.”
The only negative impact on the Tumut Bulls will be the fact that their first-grade team doesn’t play rugby until round three on April 24 against Griffith, with byes in rounds one and two.
Second-grade still kicks off their season with an away trip to Deniliquin on April 10, before a bye in round two and the Bullettes commence their season on April 17, with a home game against Leeton.