SYDNEY Rugby Union president Phil Parsons has been "very impressed" with the Hunter Wildfires return season in the Shute Shield and has left the door open for the region to continue playing in the Sydney competition.
The Wildfires, despite only given the green light four weeks before the start of a COVID-19 shortened season, have performed above expectations.
They sit in 11th place with a win and draw and hope to climb higher with winnable games against Warringah (eighth), West Harbour (10th) and Penrith (13th) remaining.
The Wildfires' second grade, colts and women have also been ultra competitive.
"We have been very impressed," Parsons said of the Wildfires first season back since 1999. "We didn't give them a lot of time to prepare for the competition but they were able to pull together a very competitive side. There have been moments in every game - even the Sydney Uni loss - where they have demonstrated their quality.
"It has been great to see them in the competition. They have wonderful community support, great facilities, are well organised and a well-rounded club for us."
Penrith, the other club reintroduced this season, this week accepted an invitation to continue next season.
Parsons confirmed that the Wildfires will be afforded the same opportunity.
Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union (NHRU) president Bill Clifton said he was awaiting the invitation in writing, which includes a participation agreement.
Sydney Rugby Union's preference is for clubs to supply three senior teams and two colts.
The NHRU have ruled that out and would only consider continuing under the current arrangement of two senior grades and a colts side.
"Penrith jumped straight in but we are being a bit more careful," Clifton said. "We want to see what the participation agreement requires us to do. Once we get the invite in writing, we will discuss it with our clubs. Our clubs are our priority. We want to make sure we have a good, vibrant local comp."
NHRU premier clubs in July voted to abandon this season due to the impact of COVID-19. The union this week sent to clubs details of a proposed competition structure for next season.
Under the proposal, third grade will not be compulsory for 2021 and there also changes to the player points system in a bid to limit players switching clubs.
The premier competition will consist of 18 rounds, starting on April 17, with the grand final on September 13.
The NHRU and Hunter juniors will join forces to run an under-19 competition.
Premier clubs will be required to fill at least six junior teams or face player points system penalties.
"We are trying to connect the under-6s to the Hunter Wildfires representative team," Clifton said. "That team might be playing in the Shute Shield, it might not. They might be playing other set fixtures like the one we played against Western Force. If we can get all the kids wanting to be a Wildfires, you never know where they are going to end up.
"Hopefully it will attract kids to the region, particularly around the colts age when they are going to uni and things like that.
"As part of the strategic plan we have been doing, we are trying to set up that pathway and connect to something where our layers will really get noticed.
"We want to run a vibrant Hunter competition here and also potentially compete in the Shute Shield in a sensible way. We can't supply ones, two, threes, fours and three grades of colts to Sydney. We have to provide the best of our players a pathway. At this stage, we would only be interested in two senior grades and colts - exactly what we have done this year. The Sydney Rugby Union may not like that."
The Wildfires' clash against Warringah is the penultimate home game and Clifton is hoping for another full house. Due to social distancing and other COVID requirements, only 500 tickets have been available to the general public each game.
"It has really engaged the Hunter rugby family, especially the older generation," Clifton said. "We have been getting near full houses and it is helping stem the economic impact of COVID-19 which has been huge. It's helping, but our main focus is our clubs and building the Hunter zone."
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