THE COVID-19 pandemic has crippled sport around the globe, but incredibly through the chaos, Hunter Junior Rugby Union has somehow managed to grow.
What's more, ambitious juniors president Kobus Hattingh has set the target of attracting an extra 500 kids to the game within the next three years.
"We got through a season when everyone told us we wouldn't play," Hattingh said. "It was a pretty tough year and we lost a couple of directors over it. But we got 10 rounds of rugby in and we got kids playing.
"Our numbers are up in COVID year. That's testament to the club presidents, the parents and all involved."
Plans are already in place for a bigger 2021 season.
With NSW Rugby Union and NSW Country Rugby Union forced to cut back staff, the HJRU has taken the initiative to employ and fund two junior development officers to cater for the region.
A schools program, involving 10 high schools, has been locked in and more resources are being aimed at increasing girls participation, especially in sevens.
"We have 2000 registered players and have a target to attract an extra 500 kids in the next three years," Hattingh said.
"Now that we have had a year playing under COVID protocols, all our kids understand and are familiar with the rules and regulations. All the clubs have COVID plans in place.
"Getting more girls playing rugby is a big thing. Gerry Mason is on the juniors board and will over see the development of the girls game. We have a girls sevens academy, which is run by Will Scully and will be competing at the tournaments.
"We are in a really good place."
The Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union, after consultation with its clubs, cancelled their senior premier competitions last season due to COVID.
A five-team divisional competition and women's 10-a-side competition went ahead.
The Hunter Wildfires representative program had two senior teams and colts (under-20s) compete in the Sydney Shute Shield. A women's team played in the Jack Scott Cup in Sydney.
Sydney Rugby Union has opened the door for the Wildfires to stay in the Shute Shield.
Hattingh is in favour of the Wildfires providing "a pathway" for juniors by competing in Sydney.
We got through a season when everyone told us we wouldn't play.- Kobus Hattingh
"There is an 18-19s competition next year, which is aimed at stopping the bleeding at the top end," Hattingh said. "The players will register as seniors but the juniors will run that competition.
"We want our best kids to stay in town. The hope is that they will then move up into the senior grades. Whatever we do as a junior association will benefit the seniors.
"We have changed our constitution so that one of our [HJRU] directors sits on the seniors board and vice versa, so we know what each other is doing."
More than 100 juniors attended a Classic Wallabies coaching clinic on Friday.
"We are super excited about the Wallabies playing in our own back yard," Hattingh said. "The more exposure and interaction the kids get to the Wallabies and Super Rugby teams the better."
And more than 70 of them will be at the Wallabies Test against Argentina at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday night.
"As a sign of thanks we are taking the ll club presidents and their partners and 70 juniors to the Test."
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
IN THE NEWS:
- Listen to our new audio briefings on your smart speaker
- RTBU calls on NSW Premier to halt testing of $2b intercity train fleet after report flags safety concerns
- Maitland hospital at 'crisis point' after doctor training ban
- NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian axes Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Catherine Cusack over vote
- Port Stephens Hunter police on alert for Schoolies celebrations in Nelson Bay, Shoal Bay