THE Hunter Wildfires remain committed to developing a successful under-20s program despite the "gut-wrenching" decision on Tuesday to withdraw from the Sydney colts competition after four rounds.
President Brett Sutherland said a combination of lop-sided scorelines - the latest a 102-0 defeat to Randwick on Saturday - and dwindling player numbers forced the Wildfires' hand.
"We have been wrestling with it and have had multiple hook-ups with Sydney Rugby Union," Sutherland said. "We have a duty of care to the players. It was completely the last option but that is where we landed."
The Randwick defeat was the Wildfires' fourth straight and followed poor results against Sydney University (120-0), Norths (87-0) and West Harbour (28-5).
"We had to play first grade colts and it was always going to be tough," Sutherland said.
"There were a couple of factors in play. It was a late start - we didn't know until February 28 that we were in - and by then we had lost another eight good local kids to Sydney. Historically, it has been a difficult age group in the local area.
"Off a couple of big losses, the kids started to lose interest. Local clubs were asking if the players were interested in coming back and we started losing them in dribs and drabs.
"We dialed in the Central Coast but they were having similar issues. We ran out of pools to fish from.
"I had a meeting with the 13 players we had left after the game on Saturday. It was pretty emotional and gut wrenching."
The majority of the Wildfires squad are under-19s and eligible for colts in 2022.
Sutherland is confident that with more time to plan, recruit and put strategies in place, the Wildfires will return and be a force in the under-20 competition next season.
"We are very committed to an under-20s program," Sutherland said. "And we still hold the absolute view that we can get it right. We are building some really strong relationships with the University of Newcastle. We have a platform to promote the program to Sydney GPS schools and other regions in NSW - namely Central West and Central North.
"We have received grant money from the Australian Rugby Foundation for an academy program that will take place in October.
"All of those things become more paramount and we go to work on them straight away."
"We will work very closely with the kids who are under-19s this year. There is a really good crop of under-18s coming through the Hunter juniors. The tide was just too strong to swim against this season."
The withdrawal of the colts side will not have any implications for the two senior grades.
"We still get to retain our teams in the senior grades," Sutherland said. "There is some restructuring within that competition next year as well and there will be criteria set out for all clubs. For us to participate moving forward - and we believe we absolutely will be - we will have to meet the criteria set."
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